The Final Part of a Mamlūk Qurʾān Copy

Written by Kelly Tuttle

A serendipitous discovery happened as part of the Manuscripts of the Muslim World project a few weeks ago. Mitch Fraas, the project lead at Penn, came by and dropped off a copy of the Journal of Islamic Manuscripts to me. A break sounded nice, so I turned away from NEP 80, normally housed in the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to have a look at the issue. When I got to the image on page 107, I thought “oh hey, I was just looking at that.” But wait, I couldn’t have been looking at the same thing, since the article I was reading is about a manuscript in the Louvre, in Paris (MAO 2281) and I had been looking at NEP 80 here in Philadelphia. NEP 80 is the last volume of a 30-volume copy of the Qurʾān, and it turns out that the Louvre has volume 10 from the same set. The Royal Library in Brussels has volume 15, and seven more volumes are held in Cairo in the Dār al-Kutub (Juvin, 2019, 117). If you do the math, you will notice that 20 volumes are still unaccounted for, so keep your eyes peeled.

The dual-page illuminated first opening of the copy at the Penn Museum, pictured above, and decorated with green and blue lotus flowers is nearly identical to the volume held at the Louvre. You can read Carine Juvin’s article to find out in full why these copies of each section of the Qurʾān are noteworthy for art historical and provenance reasons, but let’s take a closer look now at our own copy from this lovely set.

Penn Museum NEP 80, f. 1r, frontispiece with title of section, al-Juzʼ al-thalāthūn (the 3oth part).

The museum’s copy is volume 30, so the last in the set. The Qurʾān is sometimes copied in 30 volumes instead of as one volume because the Qurʾān is divided into 30 equal parts. The parts can be copied separately, if one wants. This set is fairly large in size, each volume measuring between 41-43 cm by 30-33 cm, which means it was likely for public use in the madrasah (school) where it was produced, rather than as copy for someone’s personal use.

This copy of the Qurʾān is an interesting specimen because of its layout, which Juvin argues is an early example of a style that is just beginning to catch on in the 14th century in the Mamlūk region of Egypt and Syria and was imported from Ilkhanid Iran (123). The layout of alternating text size, as seen below with a line of large muḥaqqaq script, followed by four lines of smaller naskh script, a typical bookhand, is designed to liven up the page. On the pages pictured below, we can see the gold lines of thuluth script, another large form of headline script, which, in this case, is used for the sūrah (chapter) headings. The medallions in the margins are marking verse count; the pointed medallions mark every fifth verse, and the circular ones mark every tenth verse. If you look closely, you can see the words five (خمسة) and ten (عشرة) written in the center of the medallion.

Penn Museum NEP 80, f. 12r detail of trimmed words along the fore-edge.

The Penn Museum copy measures slightly smaller than the Louvre copy. That is probably because the Penn Museum copy had its pages trimmed at some point. This seems likely because notations in the margins about text divisions and prostrations are often cut off. We can still read “niṣf ḥizb” in the image at right, meaning half of a ḥizb (a type of subdivision of the Qurʾān), but the words were probably not designed to run off the page like that which means that the leaf edges have likely been trimmed. It is not unusual to find trimmed edges in manuscripts that have been rebound, but this copy has its original boards, though they are now detached. The copy in Brussels (Ms 19991; Juvin, 121, figures 9 and 10 ) also still has its covers, and they are quite similar to the Penn Museum copy. Both show the block stamp design on the inside cover and the gold tooled, intricate, geometric patterned medallion, pictured below, on the outside cover. Likewise, the tooling on the envelope flap that folds over the fore-edge is similar.

Another characteristic of this copied set of Qurʾān volumes is the omissions, corrections and the like that appear throughout its pages. In her article, Juvin mentions that this could mean that this set was made as part of a routine copying for use in the school, rather than as a special order (116). In the Penn Museum copy, we have two nice examples of this type of making-do when something has gone not quite right. Below left, an image of verses squeezed in when they were accidentally left out of the copy. The copyist’s eye probably jumped over one line since two verses in this sūrah (al-Layl) begin in a similar way. Below right, a medallion marking five verses has been modified to fit around the lines of text that extend into the margins.

The image on the right, above, where the medallion fits around the text, also shows us that copying a Qurʾān such as this was not the work of just one person. Someone laid out the text and wrote it, and then other people, each of whom had their own skill set, went through and finished it in terms of decoration. That means that someone would add the rosettes at the end of the verses, someone else would add red and blue decorations, and someone else would add gold. This production by several hands means that sometimes you will find gaps in the copy where a decoration has been left out, or where the rubricator (the person who writes the red, gold, or other colors of text) neglected to write in headings, titles, or other special features.

Like all other volumes that make up this set, the Penn Museum volume has a colophon that tells when and where this copy of the Qurʾān was produced. Unfortunately, all known volumes in the set list the same exact date as the date of completion, even though they could not all have been completed on the same day (Juvin, 117). Although we know where the copy was produced, by whom, and on what day the entire set was finished, we do not know how long it took the scribe, Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī al-Iṣfahānī, to complete the work.

This colophon, pictured above, and set off in wide gold rules with chain design and gold marginal vignette with blue finials, says that the copy was made by Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī al-Iṣfahānī in the madrasah founded by al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Abū Saʿīd on the 10th day of the month of Dhū al-Hijjah in the year 789 A.H. (that is 22 December, 1387). The ruler referred to in this colophon is the Sultan Barqūq who reigned from Cairo from 1382–1389 and from 1390–1399. He founded a number of public works and this madrasah was one of his institutions.

One more notable feature of this copy are the inscriptions found in the same hand and relating to the same topic at both the beginning and end of the codex. The note at the end is dated 1246 A.H. (1830 or 1831 CE), and is written in an Arabic with a number of spelling errors (f. 44v). It is unclear what the significance of the notes might have been to the person who wrote them or what relation they have to the manuscript itself. Three graduate students at Penn are currently investigating this manuscript further, and hopefully will make more discoveries about its acquisition, previous owners, and mysterious notes. Stay tuned. While you are waiting, please peruse the completely digitized version of NEP80 here.

Penn Museum, NEP 80, f. 44r. The note in Arabic with spelling errors, the full meaning of which is still to be clarified.


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