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Rylands Persian MS 913: Oriental Studies between Leiden and Constantinople

Manuscript collection containing documents relating to Ottoman-Dutch relations including correspondence between Leiden orientalist Jacobus Golius and Nicolas of Aleppo.

Oriental manuscripts in Western collections often present us with mysteries, and this is certainly the case with Rylands Persian MS 913. Here we have a ‘Persian’ manuscript that hardly contains any Persian; it is a rather curious collection of documents and letters mainly in Turkish and Arabic.

The volume was compiled by the Dutch scholar Johannes Heyman (1667–1737), who travelled extensively in the Middle East and was appointed to the chair of Oriental languages at the University of Leiden in 1709. But how did this miscellany come into the Rylands? It bears the label of Nathaniel Bland (1803–65), a prominent scholar of Persian literature, whose manuscripts were bought through the London antiquarian book seller Bernard Quaritch by the 25th Earl of Crawford in 1866, and subsequently acquired by Enriqueta Rylands.

The sheer variety of the papers and letters contained in this volume is staggering: they range from Ottoman chancery documents carrying gold-dusted tughras (calligraphic emblems of the Sultan’s name), to petitions concerning trade disputes (e.g. theft of Dutch porcelain by a rival merchant) and a recipe for cooking lentils. These first-hand sources offer fascinating insights into the daily lives and struggles of various inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century, and as such deserve further study. For me, however, they are interesting for another reason: they are witness to ways in which European scholars learnt, practised and improved their Turkish, Arabic and Persian. For these documents were in Heyman’s possession precisely because he and his predecessors served as interpreters for the Dutch Republic in their dealings with the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the regional authorities from North Africa and the Middle East to the Balkans.

Persian MS 913 also illustrates a central aspect of Renaissance culture: the Republic of Letters. During the early modern period, information interchange became increasingly important, and scholars corresponded with each other all across Europe – and not just Western Europe, but also the Ottoman Empire. The manuscript contains seven letters to or from Heyman’s predecessor Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624), the first professor of Arabic at Leiden; and sixty-six letters associated with Erpenius’ successor Jacobus Golius (1596–1667). There is, for instance, a letter written in Arabic by Erpenius to the most celebrated English Arabist of the time, William Bedwell (1563–1632). You might ask why he chose to write to Bedwell in Arabic rather than Latin, the scholarly vernacular of the time. One reason was undoubtedly to display linguistic prowess and thus establish a bond of intellectual kinship. Most of the Arabic and Turkish letters, however, are addressed to native speakers of these languages and the choice of language is dictated by more practical purposes. 

The letters contained in our manuscript revolve around a cast of characters linked to the University of Leiden. In fact, Leiden University Library possesses a manuscript (Cod. Or. 1228) with correspondence that complements that contained in Persian MS 913. When reading these letters, the characters really come to life. Some letters are humorous, such as the one written by Nicolas from Aleppo (Niqūlāwus al-Ḥalabī) on 21 May 1643. Nicolas begins by lamenting the death of Golius, the recipient of the letter, only to state that he later learnt that the reports of his death had been grossly exaggerated. Nicolas was one of the few Ottoman subjects who came to Europe and found employment with Orientalist scholars, offering to copy manuscripts and help with understanding texts. 

Rylands Persian MS 913, fol. 158b. Letter from Nicolas of Aleppo to Jacobus Golius dated 27 January 1643.

A group of letters from the same Nicolas recount a case of ‘faking it until making it’. We find that the German Orientalist Christianus Ravius (1613–1677) was an academic who boasted about knowledge and skills that he did not have. After studies in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, Ravius came to Leiden in 1637 to study with Golius. Following further travels in the Middle East, he moved to England in 1641 together with Nicolas who no longer wanted to work for him. In various letters to Golius, Nicolas complained about Ravius, calling him a liar and illustrating his duplicity with examples. Nicolas alleged that Ravius would sometimes converse with him in colloquial Turkish, but wanted bystanders to think that it was Arabic — a language in which he was apparently not fluent. Ravius tried to find gainful employment at Oxford and Leiden but was ultimately unsuccessful. After much penury and many peregrinations, he finally secured the professorship of Arabic at Uppsala University in November 1650, but his peers continued to judge his scholarship poorly and dismiss his ideas as absurd.

Persian MS 913 offers a window into the complex personal relations between Ottoman subjects and European scholars, and portrays the field of Oriental Studies as it was — warts and all.

See additional folios from the manuscript here:

Further reading:

Jan Schmidt, ‘An Ostrich Egg for Golius: the John Rylands MS Persian 913 and the History of Early Modern Contacts between the Dutch Republic and the Islamic World’ in:  id., ed., The Joys of Philology: Studies in Ottoman Literature, History and Orientalism (1500–1923), 2 vols (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2002), vol 2, pp. 9–74.

Hilary Kilpatrick and Gerald Toomer, ‘Niqulawus al-Halabi (c.1611-c.1661): a Greek Orthodox Syrian Copyist and his Letters to Pococke and Golius’ , Lias. Journal of Early Modern Intellectual Culture and Its Sources 43.1 (2016): 1-160.

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