Cairo, February 2019, a few weeks before the beginning of the pandemic.
I am at the National Library of Egypt (Dār al-Kutub al-miṣriyya), one of the world's largest libraries, with thousands of ancient manuscripts and documents.
The library is an ancient institution that was founded by the Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1870. It is also an inaccessible dream for researchers and historians like me, in search of early manuscripts of the Quran.
After years of attempts to gain access to the collection, I finally received permission to view a very special manuscript: a monumental Quranic copy (mushaf in Arabic) written during the early centuries of Islam and discovered in the oldest Mosque in Cairo, which was built by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ.
"In the early 19th century, Cairo was known as a place where one could acquire every kind of antique object, including manuscripts"
Moreover, this fascinating copy is thought to be one of the copies by Caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, written in his hand and stained with his blood because, according to the Islamic historical accounts, he was assassinated while reading it.
The manuscript arrives on a carriage with sacred silence. I was full of emotion. Its size is colossal – around 50 x 60 x 40 cm thick, more than 30 kg, requiring two men to transfer it to the table.
We open the book – freshly rebound by the National Library restoration team – and begin to delicately turn the pages. Unlike the very earliest known examples of the Quran, most of which are oriented vertically, the large leaves of our copy, although nearly square, are slightly horizontal.
This may be evidence that it was produced later than other early Qurans, perhaps around the early 8th century CE. The first pages that we turn are written on paper. A note says that they were manufactured in 1830 to complete the missing parts of the manuscript as part of a restoration sponsored by the Khedive Muhammad ʿAlī Pasha.
Actually, this has not been the only restoration in our manuscript's long history.
In turning the pages, we are able to identify two previous restoration projects. The first was probably performed in the 12th century CE, during the Ayyubid period.
During the second, somewhere between the 12th and the 18th centuries CE, the manuscript was completed with leaves taken from another distinguished copy, perhaps a Fatimid Quran.
This particular attentiveness through the centuries illustrates the fact that our copy, unlike thousands of damaged early Quranic manuscripts, never fell into oblivion within the Muslim community. Why did this copy receive such close attention?
Reassembling the Fragments
In 2019-2020, I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Bureau Central des Cultes (Interior Ministry) in France to investigate the history of this manuscript.
The first step in conducting as thorough a survey as possible was to reunite all of the remaining leaves from the Codex Amrensis 22.
Indeed, over time, its leaves have become separated and are housed in a variety of locations. How and why did this dispersal occur?
In the early 19th century, Cairo was known as a place where one could acquire every kind of antique object, including manuscripts.
The Great Mosque of ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ in Old Cairo had an astounding collection of old Quranic fragments and was certainly a must for amateurs of these ancient manuscripts.
Naturally, Western scholars visiting the Mosque spotted this giant copy. According to one, the German Ulrich G. Seetzen, the leaves – as large as a "Landkartenbogen" (geographical maps) – littered the ground of a small dark room. He and the French vice-consul Asselin de Cherville managed to acquire a selection of the leaves. In this way, two sets of leaves escaped from the Mosque in the early 19th century and travelled to Europe.
One was transported to the Research Library in Gotha in Germany, and the other ended up in the French National Library in Paris. But these sets of leaves represented only a fraction of the manuscript, most of which remained in the ʿAmr Mosque until it was transferred to the National Library of Egypt in 1884.
To make things more difficult, I discovered that a few other original leaves were mixed with the Fatimid copy – which was used for the restoration – and travelled with it to Istanbul, probably during the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the 16th century.
They were preserved at the Aya Sofia Mosque before they were transferred to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in 1924. This set was not immune to looting either, as one leaf found its way to the Institute of Arts at Detroit.
Gaining access to these collections was no mean feat, but it enabled me to expand my investigation based on the whole picture of the manuscript.
"How many long-forgotten, nameless caliphs and governors patrons of lavish Quranic manuscripts have there been in the course of history?"
Hypotheses about the history of the manuscript
The manuscript has unfortunately been damaged and lost numerous leaves over the centuries, including the first and final ones, where we usually find the colophon – a small text where the scribe gives information about the copy.
In other words, little is known about the date and location where the copy was first made, or the identities of the patron, subsequent readers, or curators.
My purpose was to learn what I could from the materials themselves about the writing medium, the calligraphic style, the decoration, and the orthographical system.
Combined together, such details could ultimately provide information about the copy's historical context and the conditions of its preservation throughout the centuries.
Based on my investigation, I believe that the original manuscript dates not from the time of the Caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, but from the Umayyad period and that it originated in Egypt.
Given the enormous investment required to produce such a massive manuscript, the project was assuredly produced under the patronage of a high-ranking official such as a caliph or a governor.
Naturally, parallels with literary narratives come to mind. The Egyptian historian Ibn ʿAbd al-Hakam (d. 257/871) referred to a Quran that ended up in the ʿAmr Mosque whose patron was the Umayyad governor of Egypt, 'Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan.
A similar story was recorded six centuries later by al-Maqrizi, who also referred to another Quranic copy – the one written by the Caliph Uthman and stained with his blood – that had been brought to the 'Amr Mosque from Iraq in AH. 347/ AD. 959.
However, it must be said that our manuscript has not yet provided material evidence that it can be attributed to either ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Marwān or the Caliph ʿUthmān himself.
Indeed, how many long-forgotten, nameless caliphs and governors patrons of lavish Quranic manuscripts have there been in the course of history? It is possible that the patron of this monumental Quranic manuscript was among these anonymous figures.
Will we someday know his identity? Perhaps the last leaf of the original manuscript will be discovered, hidden in the binding of another manuscript, that will reveal the patron's name, the date, and the geographical location and conditions under which scribes laboured to copy this giant Quranic manuscript.
Eléonore Cellard is a French scholar and researcher who specializes in Arabic palaeography and codicology, particularly Quranic manuscripts.
Follow her on Twitter: @CellardEleonore
-- Sent from my Linux system.