In the classroom: The Archeology of Arabic Manuscripts

Feb. 8, 2022

In the Fall semester 2021, Professor Marina Rustow offered a graduate seminar on Arabic manuscripts—a first for instructor and students alike. The course met in Princeton University Library’s Special Collections and offered a hands-on approach to codicology, the study of manuscripts as physical objects. Students were able to handle manuscripts, decipher their contents and try their hands at reconstructing the biographies of specific manuscripts.

Princeton University houses the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in North America with 10,000 volumes (16,000 titles) in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. Donated to the university by Robert S. Garrett (class of 1897), who had acquired the manuscripts throughout his life, it is an underexplored treasure trove for scholars interested in the Islamic world and its history.

Rustow is the first to devote a graduate seminar to its Arabic holdings. “Just after I started teaching here in 2015, I learned that we have the largest collection in North America of manuscripts in the three classical languages of the Middle East, but especially in Arabic. The fact that this information hadn’t reached me earlier suggests that our collection needs more exposure.”

"Once you see that codices contain miniature histories of their production and transmission, you’ll never see a manuscript the same way again."

Rustow says she wanted to teach students to move beyond mining manuscripts for texts, and beyond “admiring handsome-looking calligraphic Qurans and Persian miniatures. Once you see that codices contain miniature histories of their production and transmission, you’ll never see a manuscript the same way again. You also realize that most collections of Middle Eastern manuscripts came into being not due to the purchases, plunder or supposedly greater historical consciousness of Europeans, but thanks to the erudition, professional judgment and social capital of Middle Eastern scholars—and their thirst for knowledge.”

The interdisciplinary appeal of manuscript study was reflected in the motley crew of graduate students who took part in the seminar, who were part of the departments of History, Art and Archeology, Music, Near Eastern Studies, Religion, and Mathematics.

The reasons that led graduate students to sign up for the class were as diverse as their home departments. 

An example of a colophon in Princeton University Library, Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 501Yq, fol. 167v.

Tobias Scheunchen, a visiting PhD student from the University of Chicago, was interested in specific codicological features, such as colophons, reading notes, and ownership statements, which can provide clues as to a manuscript’s story. 

Colophons frequently tell us the date on which the scribe who copied the work completed his or her task. Reading notes and ownership statements appear abundantly in Arabic manuscripts, revealing the names of successive owners and a rare glimpse at the premodern audience of the text.

The intricacies of the Arabic manuscript tradition, however, was not foremost in Mathilde Sauquet’s mind when she decided to register for NES 557. An Art and Archaeology student who focuses on the medieval Mediterranean, Sauquet had spent her first year in graduate school consigned to the virtual classroom. She decided to take advantage of the return to in-person teaching, signing up for two manuscript focused courses with hands-on components. With Beatrice Kitzinger she examined Latin manuscripts, with Rustow the Arabic ones, and hoped to draw parallels and find overlaps between the two traditions.

Noah Kravitz, a third-year Mathematics graduate student who had studied Arabic as an undergraduate, hoped to improve his skills deciphering handwritten Arabic, which differs from printed Arabic and is more challenging to read. Soon, however, he realized that the texts are only a fraction of what manuscripts have to offer. While working on his mid-term project to present a manuscript to the class, he realized that he had barely looked at the main text, focusing instead on the social history of his manuscript, which played out in its margins.

1357Y sama'at
Examples of reading notes in Princeton University Library, Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 1357Y, f. 3r.

"Like humans, manuscripts have led complicated, messy, and sometimes dangerous lives"

His colleagues echo his epiphany. Amel Bensalim, a first-year student in History, had “never really thought of using [manuscripts] outside of reading the main content.” Now, at the end of the semester, she describes her paleography skills as having gone from “10 to 100.” She also knows how to analyze the physical content of a manuscript, read its notes and reconstruct its history. 

The path to paleographic fluency, however, was not without challenges. Bensalim notes that reading notes—samāʿāt in Arabic—were especially difficult to make sense of. But they also surprised her as they revealed “the complex relationships between writing, oral traditions, transmission, and study in the medieval Islamic world.”

As Sauquet observes, little attention has been devoted to Arabic manuscripts beyond their text, even though they burst with a complex life story and spill their secrets freely. 

Scheunchen agrees. “Like humans, manuscripts have led complicated, messy, and sometimes dangerous lives.” He describes Islamic manuscripts as “living objects” that have fostered the engagement of “scribes, readers, listeners, commentators, booksellers, buyers, and libraries.” He describes Rustow’s seminar as a “laboratory” for “studying and reconstructing the lives and afterlives of Arabic manuscripts.” 

Ultimately, Rustow says, she wants to make an impact on medieval studies more broadly. “Most people, when they think of medieval scribes, picture a monk in a scriptorium. I want the world to see that medieval scribes were also ordinary householders in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Samarqand.”