South Asia Archive and Library Group summer meeting, 2024

The South Asia Archive and Library Group will be holding its summer meeting at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on Wednesday 19th June. SAALG is a UK-wide organisation that brings together librarians, archivists and scholars with an interest in South Asia and we meet once or twice a year, with lunch and speakers.

We are very much looking forward to our one-day event in mid-June at OCIS – see the poster for information about the speakers and talks. All are very welcome to attend, but please register in advance with Hedley Sutton (Hedley.Sutton@bl.uk), ideally by Friday 7th June. There is a charge of £25, payable on the day, to cover catering and administrative costs.

 

 

Trial: The Baghdad Observer Digital Archive (1967-1996) (until 6 April 2024)

Researchers at Oxford are invited to use the Digital Archive of the Baghdad Observer as part of a trial ending on 6th April 2024.

The Baghdad Observer was a state-sponsored Iraqi newspaper founded in 1967, published in English until its closure in 2003. The Observer not only covers key events from the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East – such as the Gulf War and the presidency of Saddam Hussein – but also wider global news that happened concurrently, often clearly filtered through the Ba’athist perspective promoted by the Iraqi government at the time.

 

^An article published in the Observer in 1986. While framed as simple analysis of historical sources, it places the blame for the Iran-Iraq War entirely in the camp of the Iranians and their determination to “destroy and plunder the cultural centres of Mesopotamia”.

 

The Baghdad Observer provides a valuable insight into a narrative of events in the Middle East in the mid-late twentieth century, especially when used in conjunction with other newspapers from the same period available on the Global Press Archive. The biases of the government are more apparent in some articles than in others – but the wide variety of subjects covered in its forty years of publication make it a valuable resource for researchers in many areas.

 

^ An Observer article published in 1989 on the founding, layout, and artefacts of the Ashmolean Museum. The author is largely complimentary of the pieces in the collections, as well as the way they have been displayed, and laments the lack of funding given to public museums in the eighties.

 

The digital archive itself contains 7619 issues of the Observer – comprising 60563 pages in total. The database has very user-friendly search and filter functions which can be used to find articles by the date of publication as well as by their title and topic. There is also a text-search function to find keywords within an article or issue.

Please take a look by 6th April and send feedback to lydia.wright@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

 

Written by Iona Spark

Trial access to Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism until 7 April 2024

Oxford researchers are invited to trial Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism: 1840–1927, part of East View’s Archive Editions series. This resource consists of 4,050 digitized documents, almost all derived from government records held in The National Archives UK; they capture an era of rising nationalist sensibility in Egypt and the response of the British government in its evolving policy towards the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Autograph letter from Esther Fahmy H. Wissa, Vice-President of the Women’s Committee of the Delegation in Egypt, to His Excellency Field Marshal Lord Allenby, 1 August 1922

Autograph letter from Esther Fahmy H. Wissa, Vice-President of the Women’s Committee of the Delegation in Egypt, to His Excellency Field Marshal Lord Allenby, 1 August 1922 ©East View

The British military occupation in Egypt was a legal and political anomaly. Never formally described as part of the “British Empire” by successive British governments, that relationship may have been inferred, applied by the popular press, or understood to be a colonial relationship by the public. But Britain was an administering power and the term “protectorate” was a debated definition of the relationship as early as 1884. The eventual end of British occupation marked the emergence of modern Egypt.

With more than 4,000 primary source documents in English, French and Arabic, Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism presents the development of nationalist sensibilities, movements, and publications from the 1870s until the third decade of the twentieth century and culminating with the formal dissolution of the British protectorate in 1924.

Letter from British Diplomat L. Oliphant, to for the Foreign Office, 1 June 1922. U.K. National Archives, T 161/155

Letter from British Diplomat L. Oliphant, to for the Foreign Office, 1 June 1922. U.K. National Archives, T 161/155

The documents included in Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism range in scope from records of casual conversations, formal meetings, correspondence with individuals and groups, monitoring of the nationalist press, internal British evaluations and debates on objectives and the status of leaders and individual campaigners, and forceful responses to insurgencies involving nationalist activists.

This collection focuses on developments connected to figures prominent in nationalist activities and pays special attention to interactions between them and British authorities, typically at flashpoints. As such, some years in which no specific events occurred may be omitted, while documents relating to particularly eventful years figure more prominently in the record.

Due to the official nature of the documents included, there is an inevitable bias against Egyptian nationalist sentiments for its inherent negative implications to British interests. However, some officials and politicians were more sympathetic and supportive than others, depending on the overall policy of the home government.

Each document in this collection is richly tagged and full-text searchable. Users can browse by people, places, and topics (as identified by the collection’s editors), as well as document types (e.g., despatch, map, telegram, letter, etc.). Each object is also georeferenced in a map view, both by geographic origin of the document and by locations associated with items in the collection.

[Information derived from East View’s website]

This trial ends 7th April 2024. Please take a look and send feedback to lydia.wright@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Literary Palestine: Read Palestine

Palestine has been in the news for as long as anyone can remember. The latest episode returned the region and the issue to the fore. But while media coverage and academic scholarship on Palestine has been intermittent and determined by politics and ideology, as well as power balance at any given time, literary representation of Palestine by Palestinians has remained largely outside media and social science accounts of the region. Yet, literature remains one of the most significant and most relatable means of self-representation and exploration of shared local and global human dimensions of conflict and strife. Palestinian literature is perhaps the richest yet the least explored archive on Palestine.  It has been multilingual, diverse in mode and spans a long historical period.

Lydia Wright, Bodleian Librarian for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Mohamed-Salah Omri, Professor of Modern Arabic Literature at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St John’s College have teamed up to highlight this diversity in a dedicated display this month at the Bodleian Nizami Ganjavi Library. The display is an invitation to read Palestinian poetry, short stories, memoirs and novels in their original Arabic, English, and Hebrew, as well as in English translation.

The call to read follows a series of seminars lead by Professor Mohamed-Salah Omri in collaboration with Ziad Kiblawi, an Oxford DPhil student focusing on Arabic intellectual history. These seminars were designed to read and discuss Palestine through its literatures. The series aims to participate in an inclusive and democratic decolonial education, which does not exclude forms of coloniality and anti-colonial struggles based on considerations of racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds. They took place in hybrid mode and attracted hundreds of participants from a wide audience, which included university students, staff and the general public from around the world. Video recordings of the three seminars (Poetic Palestine, Gaza Writes, and Expressions of Exile) can be found on Professor Omri’s website. Together with the books proposed for reading by the library they aim to provide a window on how Palestinians represented their personal and collective history; expressed their hopes and reflected on their society in a diversity of styles, modes and languages.

The books on display are a mere selection from the relevant resources available at the library, which could serve as teaching support, research material and reading for pleasure.

Do drop-by the display at the NGL or browse the suggested readings below.

For further information, please contact: Mohamed-Salah Omri or Lydia Wright.

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-1994) (جبرا ابراهيم جبرا

Emile Shukri Habibi (1922-1996) (إميل حبيبي, אמיל חביבי)

Samira Azzam (1927-1967) (سميرة عزام

Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) (طه محمد علي

Edward W. Said (1935-2003)

Ghassan Fayiz Kanafani (1936-1972) (غسان فايز كنفاني)

Sahar Khalifeh (1941-) (سحر خليفة

Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) (مَحمُود دَرْوِيْش

Mourid Barghouti (1944-2021) (مريد البرغوثي

Elias Khoury (1948-) (إلياس خوري

Anton Shammas (1950-) (أنطون شماس, אנטון שמאס

Raja Shehadeh (1951-)

Suad Amiry (1951-) (سعاد العامري

Ghassan Zaqtan (1954-) (غسان زقطان

Selma Dabbagh (1970-) (سلمى الدباغ

  • Out of it. (Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation; London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Suheir Hammad (1973-) (سهير حماد

Mosab Abu Toha (1993-)

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh

Anthologies:

T’ao-K’larjeti: The cradle of the Georgian Empire

From crumbling cathedrals to gleaming spires

Boundaries of the Kingdom of T’ao-K’larjeti in 900. (source)

In the late ninth century CE, after centuries of foreign domination in Tbilisi, the Bagratid family fled to their ancestral lands of ტაო T’ao and კლარჯეთი K’larjeti to the south. Here in their place of refuge, the Bagratids established the Kingdom of the Iberians. In doing so, they launched a cultural, religious, and political renaissance which would culminate in the establishment of the Georgian Empire and a dynasty that would endure for a millennium…

Niko Kontovas and a local in the village of Cevizli in Artvin Provice, Turkey, formerly known as ტბეთი T’beti in Georgian.

My name is Niko Kontovas. I work as the Nizami Ganjavi Subject Librarian and Curator for the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Ottoman Turkish. Almost every summer for the past decade, I have toured the ruins of the Kingdom of the Iberians (Georgian: ქართველთა სამეფო Kartvelta Samepo, existing from around 888 to 1008 AD) in what is now southern Georgia and northeastern Turkey. Also known as the Kingdom of the Georgians or The Kingdom(s) of T’ao-Klarjeti, after its constituent regions, this state holds a special place in the memory of many Georgians as the place where the Bagratid dynasty established itself as the rulers of an “independant” Georgia. This is the same dynasty which would go on to found the The Georgian Empire (Georgian: საქართველოს სამეფო Sakartvelos Samepo) a.k.a. the Georgian Kingdom, the Empire of Georgia, or the Kingdom of Georgia. Though the Empire would only last around 500 years from 1008 to 1490/1493 AD, the Bagratids continued to play a role in Georgian political and cultural life, and remain the only serious current claimants to the Georgian throne — even though Georgia itself has become a republic.

Though my adventures in ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti began long before my position here at Oxford, the collections of the Nizami Ganjavi Library hold materials on the region which are truly unparalleled in terms of their breadth and depth in collections outside Georgia. Our current book display combines photos and notes from my fieldwork in the region with selections from the library for readers to learn more about this fascinating but little studied slice of Eurasian history.

The devil’s in the details

The Devil’s Fortress at Çıldır. (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023)

Among the most impressive structures in historical ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti is the Devil’s Fortress (Turkish Şeytan Kalesi) in the Turkish province of Çıldır. Though its origin is uncertain, it had already attained its current form by 1064, when it is mentioned by the invading Seljuk Sultan آلپ آرسلان Alp Arslan, suggesting it dates to the period of the Kingdom of the Iberians.

In Georgian, the fortress is known as ქაჯის ციხე Kajis Cixe “The Kaji’s Fortress”. The ქაჯი kaji are a race of magical beings in Georgian mythology or, alternatively, a tribe of humans similarly adept at magic appearing in შოთა რუსთაველი Šota Rustaveli’s 12th c. epic ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vepxist’q’aosani “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”. Many Georgians equate the ქაჯის ციხე Kajis Cixe in Çıldır with the ქაჯთა ციხე Kajta Cixe “Fortress of the Kajis” mentioned as the home this tribe in Rustaveli’s poem.

The heroes of შოთა რუსთაველი Šota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vepxist’q’aosani “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” look out upon the ქაჯთა ციხე Kajta Cixe “Fortress of the Kajis”. From a 2011 illustrated Georgian edition of the text available to read the the Nizami Ganjavi Library.

The unassuming origins of empire

If ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti is the cradle of the Georgian Empire, კლარჯეთი K’larjeti is the cradle of the Kingdom of the Iberians which started it.

Ardanuç Fortress (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023)

On a hilltop plateau in the centre of the modern town of Ardanuç in Turkey (Georgian არტანუჯი Art’anuji) stand the ruins of an impressive fortress. This fortress was built by the Bagratid prince and Duke of კლარჯეთი K’larjeti, აშოტ I დიდი Ašot’ I Didi, a.k.a. Ashot I or Ashot the Great, around 813-818 on the site of an older castle, supposed to have been built by ვახტანგ I გორგასალი Vaxtang Gorgasali, or Vakhtang the Wolf’s Head – the semi-legendary ruler of an earlier Georgian kingdom in the 5th c. Later Georgian historiography has tended to view Ashot I’s choice of location as a conscious reassertion of an older tradition of Georgian kingship, though whether Ashot I also thought this way is a matter of some debate.

It was from here that Ashot I launched numerous campaigns against the Muslim rulers who had taken over various Georgian duchies – a process continued by his son, ადარნასე II Adarnase II, who united კლარჯეთი K’larjeti with the neighbouring dutchy of ტაო T’ao, and his twice great grandson, ადარნასე IV Adarnase IV, the first ruler of the Kingdom of the Iberians. In time, these Bagratid-lead campaigns would result in the takeover of the old capital of Tbilisi and the proclamation of the Empire of Georgia.

Ashot I also sponsored the creation and expansion of Georgian Orthodox churches in the region, supporting the efforts of გრიგოლ ხანძთელი Grigol Xanżteli, or Gregory of Khandzta – another village currently located in Turkey which houses the ruins of one of the many monasteries which he built. Monks trained by Gregory would act as emissaries to the Byzantine Emperor, and may have been instrumental in his granting Ashot I the title of κουροπαλάτης kouropalatēs – employed as a sort of Byzantine Christian “defender of the faith” at the time in the Caucasian borderlands of the Empire.

You can read more about the rise of Bagratid არტანუჯი Art’anuji and Byzantium’s recognition thereof in Evans, N. “Kastron, Rabad and Ardūn: The case of Artanuji” in Matheou et al. (ed.) From Constantinople to the frontier: The City and the cities (2016).

What makes an empire?

Scholars debate whether the Georgian polity which followed the Kingdom of the Iberians in T’ao-K’larjeti should be referred to as the Georgian Kingdom or the Georgian Empire. Whatever you choose to call it, it is beyond doubt that it had a profound impact on neighbouring empires and, as a result, the history of Eurasia as a whole.

Its imperial nature is exemplified by the Georgian Bagratid dynasty (ბაგრატიონი Bagrat’ioni in Georgian), which for numerous reasons epitomized Georgian interconnectedness. In his article on Iberia on the eve of Bagratid rule (in Le muséon LXV, 1952, pp. 199-259), Toumanoff argues that the Georgian Bagratids emerge as political players from a branch of the Armenian Bagratids (Բագրատունի Bagratuni in Armenian). While this is a matter of much debate amongst scholars, the Georgian Bagratids undoubtedly controlled many lands previously inhabited by Armenian-speaking peoples and polities.

Exterior view of Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ Եկեղեցի Surb Grigor Lusavorič’ ekeɫec’i The Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator at Ani, popularly referred to as Տիգրան Հոնենց Եկեղեցի Tigran Honenc’ ekeɫec’i The Church of Tigran Honents. Built during the period of Georgian imperial domination.
(photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023)

If a kingdom becomes an empire through its incorporation of foreign states, no single Bagratid ruler bears more right to claim the title of Emperor than თამარ მეფე Tamar Mepe Queen Tamar. Under her rule, the Georgian Empire helped to liberate the ancient Armenian capital of Անի Ani, which it then ruled first directly and then by proxy through the semi-Georgianised Armenian Զաքարյան Zak’aryan or Zakarid dynasty. Several churches the ruins of which are still well preserved at Ani were built during the period of Georgian domination, such as the splendidly decorated Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ Եկեղեցի Surb Grigor Lusavorič’ ekeɫec’i Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, popularly referred to as Տիգրան Հոնենց Եկեղեցի Tigran Honenc’ ekeɫec’i The Church of Tigran Honents after the wealthy merchant who funded its construction.


To read more about the integral role which the Georgian Empire and other Georgian polities have played throughout Eurasian history, see Donald Rayfield’s Edge of Empires (London: Reaktion, 2012).

Likewise, the Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine rump state centred around the Black Sea coastal city now called Trabzon, owes its existence to Bagratid Georgia. Though founded by the Κομνηνός Komnēnos family, the Empire of Trebizond’s founder, Αλέξιος Α΄ Μέγας Κομνηνός Alexios I Megas Komnēnos or Alexios the Great, had like his grandfather before him taken refuge in the Georgian imperial court during in-fighting over the Byzantine throne. Though the extent of Trebizond’s cultural Georgianisation has been debated, Alexios was no doubt aided in establishing the independence of his Empire by his maternal aunt, Queen Tamar.

How the mighty have fallen

Just northwest of the village of Penek in Turkey’s Erzurum province lies the ruins of a royal cathedral known as ბანა Bana in Georgian and բանակ Banak in Armenian.

Bana Cathedral (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023).
You can read more about Bana – and the other sites mentioned in this exhibit – in Giviashvili and Akder(ed.)’s The Georgian Kingdom and Georgian Art: Cultural Encounters in Anatolia in Medieval Period (Istanbul: Koç University Press, 2014).

Bana Cathedral is a testament not only to the splendour of ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti, but to its interconnectedness with the other regional powers. Though some have argued that it was built on the site of an earlier Armenian church (see Bogisch & Plontke-Lünning, “The Cathedral of Bana in Tao: Architectural Tradition and Liturgical Function” in Kudava (ed.) Tao-Klarjeti: Abstracts of Papers. Tbilisi: National Centre of Manuscripts, 2012. p. 126-7), the ruins which remain reflect a structure built by ადარნასე IV Adarnase IV, the Georgian Bagratid prince who proclaimed the Kingdom of the Iberians in ტაო T’ao and კლარჯეთი K’larjeti provinces in the year 888.

Heavily damaged by Russian fire in the late 19th c., Bana was once the royal cathedral of ტაო T’ao. In 1032, it hosted the wedding of ბაგრატ IV Bagrat IV of the newly established Georgian Empire and the Byzantine princess Ἑλένη Ἀργυρή Elenē Argyrē.

ႱႠႳႩႳႬႭ ႾႱႤႬႤႡႠ (Memory eternal)

Along with ტაო T’ao and კლარჯეთი K’larjeti, the historical region of შავშეთი Šavšeti (Turkish Şavşat) also occupies a special place in the Georgian imagination – in part because of the many monasteries which Georgian monks built there under Bagratid patronage. During the spring and summer months, the ruins of these monasteries are awash with Georgian pilgrims and tourists, many of whom light candles and leave offerings on the very walls built by the Bagratid rulers over a millennium ago.

The monastery of ტბეთი T’beti, now located in the town of Cevizli in Turkey’s Artvin province, was once home to the famous monk, გიორგი შავშელი Giorgi Šavšeli. He would later move to the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem, where he would be known as Saint Prochorus the Iberian. Among other exemplary manuscripts, he penned a book of hours now housed in the Weston Library.

Pilgrims’ offerings at the ruins of ტბეთი T’beti monastery (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2023).
Leaf from Saint Prochorus the Iberian’s book of hours, 11th c. Jerusalem. Prochorus was born გიორგი შავშელი Giorgi Šavšeli, i.e. George of Shavsheti, and was trained at ტბეთი T’beti Monastery in what is now Cevizli village, Şavşat Prefecture, Artvin Province, Turkey. Written in Middle Georgian in ნუსხური nushkhuri and ასომთავრული asomtavruli scripts. (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Georg. b. 1)

Who cares for shared heritage?

The physical remnants of ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti are overwhelmingly located within the borders not of the Georgian Republic, but of the Turkish Republic.

Though the region was the site of bloody battles between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few now seriously challenge Turkish claims on these lands. Relatively free movement across the Georgian-Turkish border means that Georgians can visit medieval sites in Turkey fairly easily.

Tourism to ტაო-კლარჯეთი T’ao-K’larjeti generates significantly less revenue than, say, tourism to Ottoman or Classical Hellenistic sites in Western Turkey. Still, several joint projects have been undertaken to excavate and restore some Georgian sites within the region. You can learn more about these construction projects in გრემელაშვილი, „ტაო-კლარჯეთის ხუროთმოძღვრული ძეგლების კვლევისა და რესტავრაციის შესახებ“ in Kudava et al. (eds.) International Conference Tao-Klarjeti: Materials. Tbilisi: National Center of Manuscripts, 2010, pp. 106-124.

The fully restored church of იშხანი Išxani Ishkhani (Turkish İşhan) in Artvin Province; restoration complete as of 2019, yet still closed to the public as of 2023. (photo courtesy of Niko Kontovas, 2021)

Some of these projects, such as the reconstruction of the church of იშხანი Išxani Ishkhani (Turkish İşhan) in Artvin Province, were nearly complete as of 2019. Others, such as the reconstruction of the massive cathedral at ოშკი Ošk’i Oshki (Turkish Öşkvank) in Erzurum Province have proceeded much more slowly.

Even in the case of successful reconstructions, most sites which have been the object of big projects have, sadly, still not fully opened. While the reasons for this are officially uncertain, locals often claim that municipal and provincial governments are worried that an influx of Georgians may prompt official requests to hold religious services at these sites, which could aggitate local sensitivities and possibly provoke irredentist claims from Georgia. Some also claim that official openings have been delayed until Georgian authorities show similar interest in restoring Muslim religious sites in Georgia.

Read more about the fascinating history of ოშკი Ošk’i Oshki cathedral through two of the inscriptions found on the structure itself in ჯობაძე, ოშკის ტაძარი. თბილისი: მეცნიერება, 1991.

Despite this, some of the best preserved site still fully visitable in the region today are those which have been transformed into mosques, such as the church of the monastery of ხახული Xaxuli Khakhuli (Turkish Haho) in the village of Bağbaşı, Erzurum. Additionally, many Muslims in the region of შავშეთი Šavšeti Şavşat consider themselves both Turkish and Georgian, sometimes even speaking Georgian at home. Even where destruction of Georgian sites has been documented in the past, locals now overwhelmingly want to see the sites restored and reopened, as much out of a sense of pride for this shared heritage as to attract more revenue from tourism to otherwise impoverished rural areas.

You can see some older pictures of sites in the region with less destruction in Kalandia, Ekvtime Takaishvili and Tao-Klarjeti. Tbilisi: Zviad Kordzadze, 2017.

Visit from Brother Anthony of Taizé

 

On 4th May 2023, the NGL was delighted to welcome a very special guest: Brother Anthony of Taizé!

The Bodleian Libraries house many important Korean manuscripts and books brought back from Korea by missionaries since the end of the 19th century.  Brother Anthony suitably follows in the footsteps of Bishop Trollope and Monsignor Richard Rutt by donating his personal library to the Bodleian.

His visit started with viewing some important Korean manuscripts and books at the Weston Library.  He then gave a talk ‘Books and People: a Korean Cornucopia’ in the Window on Korea Room, Nizami Ganjavi Library, commenting on selected books and the personalities behind them.

The lecture was followed by drinks and 장구 Janggu, a Korean drum performance in the Chapel, Hertford College.

To learn more about Brother Anthony, his fascinating work, and his extraordinary life as a bridge between the UK and Korea, visit his person web page.

 

 

 

 

Here be dragons…

April 23rd is celebrated as the Feast of St. George here at Oxford!

It is often that St. George was proclaimed as the patron saint of England at the Synod of Oxford in 1222, and though historians cast doubt on this claim, St George’s feast day has, in the minds of many, a special relationship with our city.

As it turns out, the patron “saint” of our library, the 12th c. CE poet نظامی گنجوی Niẓāmī Ganjavī, was also a huge fan of dragons, and featured them prominently in his story of the هفت پیکر Haft Paykar or “Seven Forms”.

In honour of our library’s doubly special relationship with dragons, we here at the NGL have decked our display table with a selection of literature on dragon myths from across our region of expertise.

Of course, given our namesake’s fondness for these scaly beasts, it’s no surprise that the centrepiece of our display is حسن وحید دستگردی Ḥasan Vaḥīd Dastgirdī’s 1936 CE Persian edition of نظامی گنجوی Niẓāmī Ganjavī’s Haft Paykar — one of only a number of original language editions held int he NGL’s collections.

Niẓāmī Ganjavī, and Vaḥīd Dastgirdī, Ḥasan. Haft Paykar. Tihrān, 1936. Print.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

Carving from the 10th c. Georgian ხახული Khakhuli monastery (now in Bağbaşı village, Erzurum, Turkey) which depict the swallowing of Jonah by the “whale”. (picture courtesy of Niko Kontovas)

Various traditions within our region acknowledge numerous types of fantastic creatures which, though distinct from one another according to those traditions, are all sufficiently recognisable as dragons according to our modern conception of the term.

Across much of Eurasia, for example, there is ambiguity – both in language and, often, in form – between dragons and snakes.

In Abrahamic religions, there are numerous creatures which are variously conceived of as both snake-like and dragon-like. In Hebrew, the word תנין tannīn can refer to many such creatures – snakes, sea snakes, crocodiles, dragons, and even whales – often associated with the sea and almost always associated with evil.

Translations of the Old Testament into various languages throughout history have reflect differing interpretations of the same word in different contexts, sometimes translating תנין tannīn the same way as נחש‎ nāḥāš “serpent”. This further reinforced the association between serpents, dragons, and the Devil.

Eventually, in some eastern Christian traditions, giant sea monsters began appearing where none existed in the Hebrew. This carving from the 10th c. Georgian ხახული Khakhuli monastery (now in Bağbaşı village, Erzurum, Turkey) is thought to depict the swallowing of Jonah by the “whale” – here nearly unrecognizable as such – though the original Hebrew refers only to a דג גדול dāg gādōl “big fish”.

Hāṇḍā, Omacanda. Naga Cults and Traditions in the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Pub., 2004. Print.

Similarly snake-like are the nāga of the Indic tradition. Though the exact characteristics of nāga vary widely across South Asia, like the Hebrew תנין tannīn, the Sanskrit नाग nāga is usually supernaturally powerful and associated with water. In contrast to Canaanite serpent-dragons, however, nāga are often portrayed as part human and can be either neutral or benevolent in their interactions with the human world.

Handa’s Naga cults and traditions int he western Himalaya (2004) details the worship of nāga deities in the Western Himalaya, where they are particularly associated with the weather, agriculture, and – curiously – bees. Like snakes, nāga deities in this region spend much of their time underground or underwater, and they occasionally claim a sacrifice – probably reflecting the occasional loss of life to snakebites in the fields.

 

In his classic tome on Tree and serpent worship (1873) in India, also on our display, Scottish Orientalist James Fergusson theorised, in part on the basis of the absence of any mention of nāga worship in the Vedas, that the veneration of nāga in these regions of India is a remnant of indigenous traditions dating back to before the Indo-European invasion of the Subcontinent – even, perhaps, before the spread of Dravidian-speaking peoples.

Connected at different points in pre- and early history to both the Biblical תנין tannīn and the Sanskrit नाग nāga is the Avestan Aži Dahāka, the most evil demon serpent of Zoroastrianism.

The word aži is cognate to Sanskrit अहि ahi “snake”, but Aži Dahāka much more closely resembles the Biblical sea monsters than the Indian objects of worship. Where nāga can control wind and rivers, Aži Dahāka merely entreats the Zoroastrian angels of the winds and rivers to lend their power so that he may pervert it to destroy humanity.

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f. 30a.
ضحاک Żaḥḥāk is nailed to Mount Damāvand as punishment.

In later Iranian myths, preserved most famously in Firdawsī’s epic poem شاهنامه Šāhnāma, Aži Dahāka is anthropomorphised in the form of the immortal tyrannical ruler ضحاک Żaḥḥāk who, after permitting the evil deity اهرمن Ahriman to kiss his shoulders, sprouts from them two serpents who demand to feast on human brains.

You can see this in folio 30a of Ouseley Add. 176, a beautifully illustrated Persian manuscript of the شاهنامه Šāhnāma held at the Weston Library. Some of you may also remember from our post back in March for Nowruz that the NGL hosts a number of editions of the شاهنامه Šāhnāma, so you can come read the gruesome tale of ضحاک Żaḥḥāk yourself in at least four different languages!

Incidentally, the modern Persian word for “dragon” اژدها aždahā is derived from the name of Aži Dahāka, whence also the word for “dragon” in many other languages, like Turkish ejderha and Kurmanji Kurdish ejdeha/ejdîha.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them… in a Mediaeval Turkish manuscript at the Weston!

By the Islamic Middle Ages, dragons in much of the Middle East had become, much as they had in contemporary Christian Europe, fantastic beasts of various shapes and sizes.

In an illuminated manuscript of مصلح الدین سروری Muṣliḥuddīn Sürūrī’s 17th c. CE Turkish translation of زکریا ابن محمد قزوینی   Zakariyyā ibn Muḥammad Qazwīnī’s 13th c. CE عجاٸب المخلوقات Ajā’ibu l-maḥlūqāt, housed here in the Weston Library (shelfmarked MS Turk. d. 2), we can see two depictions of dragons, accompanied by an explanation of their form, nature, and purported habitat.

The first (folio 140a) demonstrates how dragons in this period are depicted as largely malevolent and associated with the destructive forces of nature. Here we see repeated the common trope, whereby dragons are associated with the end of the world – here as the food for Gog and Magog, the monstrous lords who will wreak havoc upon the Earth before the Day of Judgment. The notion that Gog and Magog feast on a dragon flesh is first attested in Firdawsī’s Šāhnāma.

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
MS Turk d 2, folio 140a.

“And (another) one is the dragon in the sea, which harms sea creatures. God on high sends a cloud to lift it from the bottom of the sea. It has a body like a big black fish and the colour of it sends out lightning, such that if its tail as big as a tree should touch a building it would ruin it. Whatever its breath reaches burns, and that cloud raises it up to the region where Gog and Magog are and drops it there, so that it might be their food, such that each of them brings a knife and cuts it and feeds upon it […]”

In a second (folios 144b-145a) depiction, we see another dragon fulfilling roles as both an object of conquest and a bearer of magic. Any man brave enough to slay it can employ its oil and meat to a variety of magical ends, further enhancing his valour and virility. In the interest of space we’ll leave them off this blog post, but you can come see these and read a translation of these folios in the NGL!

A case of mistaken identity (Part 1)

The northern half of the Armenian Highlands (composing parts of what is now Armenia, north-eastern Turkey, and southern Georgia) is littered with megaliths known in the Armenian scientific literature վիշապաքարեր višapak‘arer (singular վիշապաքար višapak‘ar) in Armenian – literally “dragon stones”.

While the dating of these stones – and, therefore, the ethno-linguistic characteristics of those who constructed them – is uncertain, they have become associated in local cultures for centuries with “dragons”, with which they share a name in local languages: Armenian վիշապ višap and Kurmanji Kurdish ejdeha.

Early research, such as Marr & Smirnov’s Les vichaps (1931), relied heavily on this association in their analysis of these stones. They note that an early Georgian translation of the Bible employs the word ვეშაპი vešap’i for the sea creature which swallows Jonah, often confused with a whale. They further suggest that the location of the dragon stones near high-altitude lakes and rivers seems to suggest an affiliation with water, which is also a characteristic of dragons in pre-Christian Armenian folklore. If the dragon stones were sites of veneration of dragon-like water deities for ancient Armenians, they argue, the veneration of the fire god Վահագն Վիշապաքաղ Vahagn Višapak‘ał “Vahagn Dragon-culler” and the vilification of dragons by later Armenians may suggest successive inversions of older beliefs by Zoroastrian and Christian authors.

Later research, such as Капанцян Kapant͡si͡an‘s О каменных стелах на горах Армении O kamennykh stelakh na gorakh Armenii (1952), has preferred to analyse the stones outside the context of their later mythical association with dragons. They identify the two figures which frequently appear on these stones as a “fish” and a “sacrificial animal” – probably a bull – but the popular association with dragons and the name višapak‘ar has remained.

Հայերեն: Վիշապաքար ցուլի պատկերով, Ք.ա. 3-2 հազ. Կառավարական երրորդ շենքի գլխավոր ճակատի մոտ.

A case of mistaken identity (Part 2)

With a name like “Georgia”, you might expect the largely Orthodox Christian Caucasian nation to celebrate St. George’s feast day – and indeed it does, though not when you might expect.

The festival of გიორგობა Giorgoba in Georgia is celebrated differently and at different times in different parts of Georgia, with common dates being 6 May, 23 November, and 14 August. Even the name of the holiday differs from place to place, though the association with St. George remains. Veneration of St. George in general is common across the country – so much so that, upon its independence from the Russian Empire, the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia made St. George its patron saint, as he remains to this day. You can read all about the various folk incarnations of St. George in Charachidzé (1968)’s Le système religieux de la Géorgie paienne.

Charachidzé, Georges. Le Système Religieux De La Géorgie Païenne : Analyse Structurale D’une Civilisation. Paris: F. Maspero, 1968. Print. Textes à L’appui.

You may be surprised to learn, then, that the country was not named after the saint – at least not originally. While the country bears the name Georgia (or names like it) in English and many European languages, the name for the country in Georgian is საქართველო Sakartvelo, ultimately related to a geographical term and ethnonym from a certain part of the country. The common European name seems to stem from the Persian ethnonym گرچی gurjī, ultimately probably related to the word گرگ gurg “wolf”, transformed by European pilgrims to the Holy Land some time during the Middle Ages – perhaps noting Georgian pilgrims’ veneration of St. George.

Funnily enough, while the story of St. George and the Dragon is known in Georgia, it does not seem to have played a major role in his traditional veneration. Instead, Charachidzé argues, many of the St. George myths from Georgia are ported over from pagan myths, usually of an old lunar deity.

Pre-Christian Georgian mythology does, however, feature dragons – usually known as გველისფერები gvelisperebi (singular გველისფერი gvelisperi), literally ‘serpent-coloured’ or ‘serpent-like’. In some legends, the გველისფერები gvelisperebi are servants or guards of certain gods or demigods. In others, they specifically guard the entrance to the underworld and are at war with the birds – sometimes eagles or the phoenix-like ფასკუნჯი Pask’unji – perhaps betraying an older association with the earth and water in opposition to the sky and fire.

Coat of arms of the Democratic Republic of Georgia depicting St. George with the sun and moon – but no dragon!

New LibGuide for the Caucasus and Central Asia!

Hello, Salam, Сәлем, Салам, Салом, Salom, سالام, سلام, Բարև, and გამარჯობა!

My name is Nicholas Kontovas, but I generally prefer to be called Niko. I’m the Bodleian Libraries’ new Nizami Ganjavi Subject Librarian for the Caucasus and Central Asia!

I say “new”, but those regular visitors of the NGL among you will doubtless have already caught a glimpse of me dipping into the reading room to check the card catalogue or fussing over the Nowruz book display. I started in this post in January 2023 with the goal of curating and strengthening our collections and drumming up interest in parts of the world that often get overlooked: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as some adjacent regions of Eurasia with cultural and historical ties to these countries, like the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Some day in the near future, I hope to properly introduce myself through a serious of posts where we interview the staff who manage to the NGL’s collections. For now, I just wanted to let you all know that the Caucasus and Central Asia LibGuide is up and running!

You can use the LibGuide to find resources in our collection related to any of the regions above. There are also links to freely available resources online which you might not be aware of.

As our collection grows and we discover new resources, I’ll be expanding the LibGuides and making updates on this blog. If you know of any resources we have that aren’t on there, feel free to drop me a line using the info on the LibGuide. If there’s a resource we don’t have access to, you can also write me to recommend we try to get access to it.

Until then, happy browsing and sağol, сау бол, пока, خدا حافظ, hoş sag bol, ئامان بولۇڭ, ցտեսութիւն, and ნახვამდის!

Celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month at the NGL

Last month was the UK’s LGBTQ+ History Month, and to celebrate this occasion, we at the Nizami Ganjavi Library created a display to showcase some of the Bodleian Libraries’ LGBTQ+ related materials, from across the Middle East. I hope that seeing this side of the collections was as enlightening for you as it was for me, and thank you for all those who expressed a positive interesWith the NGL’s blog newly up-and-running, I thought I would it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to provide a bit more information!

A collection of books on a table. Some are proppeA collection of Bodleian Libraries' books on LGBTQ+ themes. Behind the books is a board with images from 'There Are No Homosexuals in Iran' on the left and the movie poster for 'Alexandria Again and Forever' on the right. In the centre is a sign with text in the colours of the Progress Pride flag that reads LGBTQ+ History Month at the NGL Behind the Lens.
Last month’s display by the NGL issue desk.

Front cover for the book Islamicate Sexualities

The display included works from and about a wide range of countries are included – Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Armenia – representing a diverse range of perspectives on LGBTQ+ experiences. This was very necessary, because often conversations on LGBTQ+ issues are dominated by Western frameworks – some of which may be inappropriate to the cultures discussed. This is a difficulty that the volume Islamicate Sexualities tackles head-on, questioning how well Western queer identities can apply to subjects of study that are distant not only geographically, but also temporally. The volume’s contributors carefully excavate from documentary evidence how various historic Islamic writers represented normative sexuality as it existed in their time and region, making for a fantastic and subtle analysis. I highly recommend this title!

Front cover for the book Unspeakable Love

Similarly, Brian Whitaker, in representing the LGBTQ+ experience leading to the modern day, carefully writes to avoid simple orientalist narratives about a repressive Middle East and a tolerant West. At the same time, he acknowledges the many obstacles faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the countries he discusses.

This reality can also be seen in how many of the queer authors included here write from outside of their country of origin, or in European languages, such as Abdellah Taïa who writes in French, and Khaled Alesmael who writes in German. This interplay is present in Siba Al-Harez’s novel The Others, in which the protagonist discovers same-sex attraction for the first time. Al-Harez writes about the difficulty of finding information about sexuality on the internet under Saudi censorship, and the different language that the unnamed main character encounters on domestic sites compared to foreign ones – language of sin versus language of identity – and how she finds both equally confusing.

Front cover for the book Selamlik by Khaled AlesmaelFront cover for the book Another Morocco by Abdellah TaïaFront cover for the book The Others by Siba Al-Harez

Image from There Are No Homosexuals in Iran depictingtwo fat women cover each other's faces in a well-lit white room. Both wear white t-shirts. One wears orange trousers and the other black trousers. One has blonde hair and the other has dark hair.
Image from ‘There Are No Homosexuals in Iran’ by Laurence Rasti

Yet another perspective can be seen in Swiss-Iranian photographer Laurence Rasti’s There Are No Homosexuals in Iran. This title is a reference to a comment made by then Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2007. In this beautiful series of photographs, Rasti shows a variety of queer Iranians defiantly and quietly living their daily lives, interspersed with images of Tehran and domestic scenes. Another reason why I chose to include Rasti’s work is because this year, the theme for LGBTQ+ History Month is ‘Behind the Lens’. This theme drew me to written works by queer Middle Eastern filmmakers like Khaled Alesmael, Saleem Haddad, and Abdellah Taïa, but also Hovhannes Tekgyozyan’s ‘movie novella’. This book both evokes the subject of filmmaking in the form of the protagonist, Gagik’s projects, and in its structure and style. To me, this novel is not only queer in having openly gay characters, but also in the way that Tekgyozyan’s use of ‘cuts’ and ‘scenes’ to play with time in this work, conjures the concept of ‘queer time’.

Movie poster for Alexandria Again and Forever with text in both French and English. In the foreground is the actor Amr Abdulgalil in a light suit and shirt, making a swooning gesture.
Movie poster for ‘Alexandria Again and Forever’.

I have also included in this display information about Youssef Chahine and his autobiographical Alexandria quadrilogy. While Chahine was never openly queer, the films in this series are notable for their nuanced depictions of masculine same-sex desire. Whether or not these representations illustrate anything about the creator’s own identity, the theme of ‘openness to the other’ runs through many of Chahine’s films, and his willingness to show queer perspectives fits this trend. In any case, these films are an indispensable part of understanding queer Egyptian cinema. I particularly recommend Alexandria Again and Forever – a genre-bending dramedy that examines themes of obsession, history, and auteur theory, but is also a fun experience.

It has been rewarding for me to look at LGBTQ+ history through a different ‘lens’ at the NGL, and I hope that you find something interesting or enlightening for you in these materials too. But this is nowhere near everything that the Bodleian has to offer on LGBTQ+ themes in the Middle East. For example, the book Queer Turkey: Transnational Poetics of Desire is also available online via SOLO. I can only encourage you to explore further!

New Day, New Face!

 

Welcome to the new face of the Nizami Ganjavi Library blog!

It’s been a long time since our last post, but going forward we hope to use this site more actively to keep our visitors up to date on the Library’s holdings, events, and related activities in Oxford and beyond.

Given the theme of renewal, it seems only fitting that the first post on our new site would revolve around the theme of Nowruz — the Persian New Year and a spring festival celebrated across much of Eurasia — which is also, incidentally, the theme for our book display for the month of March 2023!

What is Nowruz?

Nowruz is, at its core, a celebration of spring and – more specifically – of the spring equinox. In the Iranian calendar, which is a solar calendar, this is also the first day of the first month, فروردین Farvardīn, making Nowruz the Iranian New Year celebration.

While Nowruz is celebrated by numerous groups which do not make use of the Iranian calendar, the name Nowruz and certain traditions associated with it betray a common origin somewhere in the distant, pre-Islamic past of greater Iran.

Though the ultimate origins of the holiday are debated, the Persian epic poem, the شاهنامه Šāhnāma of Firdawsī, tells of how the legendary king Jamšēd saved the world from an endless winter by building a gold and bejewelled throne which, when raised up towards the sky, shone like the sun and banished the darkness, saving humanity. In commemoration of this “New Day”, the Iranians celebrate Nowruz < Persian نو naw “new” + روز rōz “day”.

One of the Library’s many versions of the ŠāhnāmaDick Davis’ English translation, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings (New York/London: Penguin, 2007) can be found on our book dispaly this month.

You can also find جواد برومند سعید Javād Barūmand Sa‘īd‘s excellent research collection on the history of Nowruz, نوروز جمشيد: پژوهشى نوين از پيدايى نوروز Nawrūz-i Jamshīd: pizhūhishī nuvīn az paydāʼī-i Nawrūz.

Nowruz is celebrated in different cultures across Eurasia, so it’s no surprise that there are different ways to render/spell/pronounce the name of the holiday. One book on our display, Fatih Köse’s Osmanlı Devletinde Nevrûz (İstanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat, 2007) relates how Nowruz celebrations were once common among certain classes and populations within the Ottoman Empire, even if they are primarily associated with Kurds in Turkey today.

Here are some other versions of the name for this holiday in languages you may come across.

name language(s)
Navrez Crimean Tatar
Neowrez Mazandarani
Nevruz Albanian, Turkish
Newroz Kurmanji, Zazaki
Novruz Azerbaijani
Nowruz Turkmen
Nûroj Kurmanj (rare/learned)
Навруз Navruz Nogay, Russian
Науруз Nauruz Bashkir
Наурыз Nauryz Kazakh
Нәүрүз Näwrüz Volga Tatar
Нооруз Nooruz Kyrgyz
نەورۆز Newroz Sorani
نورۇز Noruz Uyghur
نوروز Nowruz Gilaki, Iranian Persian
Nawrōz Balochi, Dari, Pashto
نوورځ‎ Nawwraź Pashto (rare/learned)

The Nizami Ganjavi Haft-Sin Table

The Haft-Sin (“Seven S’s”) Table — سفره‌ای هفت سین  Sofre-ye Haft-Sin (Sufra-yi Haft-sīn) in Persian — is a fixture of most Iranian households during the Nowruz season, much the same way as a Christmas tree or Chanukkiah. The table is decorated with seven items, each starting with the letter س S in Persian.

In many regions, Nowruz traditions involve the number seven. Exactly why this is in uncertain, but it likely derives from the importance of the number in the Zoroastrian tradition.
In the Avesta, the most holy text of the Zoroastrian religion, Aməša Spəṇta “The Eternal Holies” are seven emanations of the supreme god, Ahura Mazdā, personified in the form of seven divine beings, each representing one of the seven eternal aspects of creation. You can read about this yourselves in an original-language copy of a portion of the Avesta in the form of William A. V. Jackson’s Avesta Reader (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1893), currently adorning our Nowruz dispay in the NGL.

The seven items on a Haft-Sin table sometimes vary, but the standard seven are, along with the things they are often said to represent:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
سیب sib (sēb) apple beauty
سیر sir (sīr) garlic health
سنجد senjed (sinjid) oleaster love
سمنو samanu (samanū) malted wheat pudding strength
سماق somāgh (sumāq) sumac the sun
سرکه sirke (sirka) vinegar patience
سبزه sabze (sabza) greens rebirth

Additional items beginning with س S that are sometimes used alongside or instead of the above are:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
سکه sekke (sikka) coin prosperity
ساعت sāʿat clock time
سنبل sonbol (sunbul) hyacinth spring

Other items are often placed on the Haft Sin table for their symbolic significance regardless of the letter they start with:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
آینه āyine (āyina) mirror introspection
شمع shame’ (šam‘) candle light
تخم مرغ رنگی tokhm-e morgh rangi (tuxm-i murğ rangī) red painted egg fertility
نارنج nārenj (nārinj) orange in a bowl of water the earth
شیرینی shirini (šīrīnī) sweets pleasure
اسفند* esfand (isfand) seeds of Ruda graveolens (rue) banishing evil
شیر shir (šīr) milk purity
بیدمشک bid-meshk (bēd-mišk) branch of a Salix aegyptiaca (musk willow) nature
**کتاب ketāb (kitab) book wisdom

(* Indeed, in some dialects and in older varieties of Persian, this word was pronounced سفند sifand or سپند sipand and would have therefore begun with س S.)

(** The book in question is traditionally one of four: the Qur’ān, the Avesta, the Šāhnāma, or the Dīvān of the poet Ḥāfiẓ of Shiraz. For our display at the NGL, we’ve chosen a version of the دیوان حافظ شیرازی Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ-i Šīrāzī — one of many available in our collections!)

Haft-Sin tables are nevertheless as varied as the people who make them, and no book demonstrates this better than Maryam Khosrowshahi’s Sofreh: the art of Persian celebration (London: ACC Art Books, 2014), also on our book display.

In the two-volume set, you’ll find superbly decorated tables, not only for Nowruz but for other Persian celebrations.

Speaking of which, you can learn more about traditional Persian holidays from another of our holdings on display this month, Aly Mazahéri‘s Le Nowroûz et le Mihrikân (Paris: Association des disciples d’Aly Mazahéri, 1992).

Since Nowruz is such a big part of the culture of so many regions within the NGL’s purview, we’ve decided to celebrate this year by adorning our Nowruz book display with a traditional Haft-Sin table!

The board shows even more information about Nowruz traditions from around Eurasia, so don’t forget to stop by before the end of March and see how many of the items above you can spot on our display.