The Berlin State Library owns the largest collection of oriental manuscripts and blockprints in Germany: about 42 000 items in all.
The Berlin State Library owns the largest collection of oriental manuscripts and blockprints in Germany: about 42 000 items in all.

Mammoth project to archive manuscripts

By ANDREAS HUMMEL Time of article published May 14, 2013

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Jena, Germany - After more than 50 years of meticulous work, German specialists say the end is in sight for efforts to make previously unregistered manuscripts in scripts and languages of Asia, the Middle East and Africa accessible through printed catalogues.

If all goes well and continued financing can be secured, the mammoth project may be completed in 2022.

Extensive collections of what are termed “oriental” manuscripts can be found in German libraries. Many books in the Arab world were laboriously copied by hand until the 20th century, when printing had long been established elsewhere.

The Berlin State Library owns the largest collection of oriental manuscripts and blockprints in Germany: about 42 000 items in all.

Proposed by German orientalists in 1957, the Union Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts in German Collections (known by its German abbreviation, KOHD) has been a research project of the Goettingen Academy of Sciences since 1990.

KOHD has so far published more than 140 volumes of catalogues as well as studies dealing with specific manuscripts.

Researchers at the University of Jena in eastern Germany specialise in Arabic manuscripts.

At other German universities, Old Turkic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Egyptian, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Persian, Uigur, Indian, Hebrew, Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese manuscripts and the like are being studied.

The Islamic scholar Tilman Seidensticker supervises the work in Jena. Cradling a dark red leather slipcase, he carefully pulled out a book to show a visitor recently. From the Bavarian State Library, it was among several items being kept in three safes for analysis and cataloguing.

Seidensticker pointed to an almond-shaped design on the cover, called the mandorla, which he said was a typical feature.

Opening the book revealed flowing Arabic script and, on some pages, marginal notes made in a herringbone pattern at a 45-degree angle to the text.

“It looks like an Arabic grammar,” said Seidensticker, who estimated it had been written in the 19th century.

The project is extremely important for libraries and the scholarly community, according to Helga Rebhan, director of the Bavarian State Library's Oriental and Asian Department. “New transcripts and comparative texts are constantly being discovered,” she said.

Rebhan said the Bavarian collection comprised about 17 000 oriental and East Asian manuscripts, the oldest of which dated from the 8th century. Among them are manuscripts in Old Javanese and extremely fragile texts written on palm leaves.

“KOHD is a unique project at an international level, too,” explaining Rebhan, noting it included texts from a range stretching from Morocco to Japan in a host of languages.

She said funding by Germany's federal and state governments, currently scheduled to end in 2015, must therefore be continued.

Due to copyright restrictions, digitising the catalogues originally published in book form has not yet been possible, which “hinders their availability via the Internet,” she said.

So as to catalogue all of the multitudinous manuscripts, only key information is briefly noted for about 90 per cent of them.

“People who want to know more have to go to the respective library or order digital images,” Seidensticker said. “Texts that especially stand out are described in more detail.”

Some documents are of inestimable significance, and some had been entirely unknown before the catalogers got to work, Seidensticker said.

He cited a report by an imam from Istanbul who inadvertently ended up in Brazil in the 1860s after his ship ran into a storm whilecircumnavigating Africa.

The account of his dealings with other Muslims there is important historic testimony about South America's Islamic culture, Seidensticker said.

Oriental manuscripts were once acquired by German princes for their libraries.

Later, German scientists and scholars collected large numbers of them, for example during their travels. The Gotha Research Library at the University of Erfurt, in the German state of Thuringia, has a particularly valuable collection of such manuscripts.

Among them, Seidensticker said, are parchment Qur’ans in landscape format from the 8th to 10th centuries.

Though the manuscripts in Thuringia have now been completely catalogued, gaps remain in the collections at other German libraries.

But KOHD, according to Seidensticker, has entered its final phase. “We've submitted a plan for concluding the project in seven years,” he said, adding that a decision would be made this year on funding beyond 2015. - Sapa-dpa


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