Mining Manuscripts of the Ottoman Archives


Example of ornamentation in the zahriye pages of an Ottoman manuscript. Image provided by the Ottoman Manuscript Collection of Safvet Beg Bašagić; digital images available online:

 Sarah Islam is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Princeton University and an ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellow for 2015–2016. In order to complete her research project, which deals with the evolving historical discourse on blasphemy as an Islamic legal category, from the medieval period until the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Islam needed to painstakingly examine a wide variety of original source material housed in libraries and manuscript collections across the Middle East and in Jordan in particular. Her ACOR Blog article describes the process of working with these rare and exceptional materials.

A question I have been frequently asked by colleagues during my time in Jordan has been, “What is it like handling manuscripts and historical documents that are so rare?” More specifically, they want to know how I distinguish Ottoman manuscripts from those of other periods, and how I am able to determine their age, authorship, title, and ownership. And, given where these materials are housed, people also want to know how they are maintained, and what challenges exist regarding access. Through this article, I hope to answer some of these questions, provide a little background about Ottoman manuscripts, and convey a little of my experience in handling these precious texts.

An Introduction to Ottoman Manuscripts

Until the mid-nineteenth century, when the use of printing became more common place for reproducing books in the Ottoman Empire, books existed primarily in manuscript form. These manuscripts were preserved by various types of collectors, and copyists were employed with the task of producing a new copy of the book on an as-needed basis. Many manuscripts would eventually end up in libraries that had been gifted or donated for the purpose of book collection and preservation. These libraries were often a part of larger foundations; after the seventeenth century, however, they began to exist as independent entities.

Contrary to what one might think, it was not the scholarly class that constituted the majority of manuscript collectors, but rather the Ottoman sultans. It was not uncommon for Ottoman sultans to have miniature artwork commissioned to be included within the pages of a manuscript, chronicling the dynastic events of that age. Later rulers would build and dedicate special rooms in their palaces for their manuscript collections. Depending on how ornately such manuscripts were decorated, they even kept them within the palace treasury for added security. It was in the palace complex that sultans would finance workshops specifically for manuscript illumination, bookbinding, and miniature art. Artists from various parts of the world would be brought to the sultan’s palace and commissioned to work on specific pieces.

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Books were bound using a variety of materials, depending on time period and ownership. Most Ottoman manuscripts were bound in ivory, ornamented with mosaics, embossed, or gold veneered. Those owned by sultans were often decorated with precious stones, such as pearls and diamonds. On the inner and outer bindings, one would often find illumination, marbling, calligraphy, woven textile, or even metal embroidery. In the early Ottoman period such ornamentation was reserved primarily for the bookbinding itself. However, in later periods such ornamentation could be found not only on the bookbinding but also on the first and last pages of the actual enclosed manuscript.

While the material of the binding could vary, the most commonly used material for Ottoman binding was leather, in particular sheep, goat, gazelle, and cow leathers. Bound Ottoman manuscripts normally consisted of six main parts: the front cover, the back cover, the spine, the sertab (a type of book flap), the mikleb (an edge flap that connects the sertab to the cover), and of course the actual pages within the book. Two distinguishing motifs one finds on Ottoman manuscript covers and miklebs are sunburst and pendant (salbek) designs. In the early Ottoman period, these motifs were often round in shape. After the sixteenth century, these motifs were largely oval in shape (see image of book cover below). Another distinguishing characteristic found in post-sixteenth century Ottoman manuscripts was the use of marbling as an ornamental feature on the inside covers. The marbled pages were often lined on the edges with leather for added protection.

An example of leather bookbinding from an Ottoman manuscript. Image provided by the Ottoman Manuscript Collection of Safvet Beg Bašagić; digital images available online:

In terms of ornamentation within the actual pages of the manuscript, three areas in an Ottoman manuscript that were particularly important were the zahriye, serlevha, and hatime pages. The first one or two pages of the manuscript were zahriye pages and often consisted mostly of ornamentation and artwork, with little if any actual text (see opening image). Thereafter would be the page where the actual text began. On this page, above the beginning of the text one would find artwork that was usually square or triangular in shape called the serlevha (see image below). Inscribed within or below this was usually the title of the text and/or the basmala. The last page, known as the hatime is where the names of the author, illuminator, and calligrapher were found, as well as the date of the completion of the work. This information is usually written in a triangular shape at the very end of the text on that page.

The first page of text and serlevha of an Ottoman manuscript. Image provided by the Ottoman Manuscript Collection of Safvet Beg Bašagić; digital images available online:

Preserving and Digitizing Ottoman Manuscripts

In Jordan, institutions like the Center for Documents and Manuscripts at the University of Jordan house more than 30,000 manuscripts and archives, in addition to copies of materials from other regional libraries. In Turkey, more than half a million manuscripts are currently stored in various libraries and archival facilities. Less than half of these documents (and even less than that in many cases) are sufficiently processed to be available for research to the wider public.

The Center for Documents and Manuscripts on the campus of the University of Jordan in Amman. Photo by Sarah Islam.

Why is this case? Manuscript identification and preservation is a challenging enterprise. Personnel trained to handle and restore manuscripts are few in number. In addition, the facilities and equipment required to engage in such work can be expensive especially given the need for special long-term storage. Budgetary constraints and limited funding can stunt or prevent the ability of institutions to engage in long term preservation and manuscript identification. The implication is that manuscripts can end up in long term storage without ever being processed. Even worse, if not stored in appropriate conditions, they can become damaged over time. Exposure to humidity, extreme temperatures, sunlight or artificial light, or the growth of mold or insects can irreversibly damage these artifacts.

Even when manuscripts are documented and catalogued, uniformity in terminology, transliteration, and spelling has yet to be established across collections. In other words, an author’s name can manifest itself in a variety of different spellings or can even result in vastly differing permutations depending on which collection is being examined. This can make the search for manuscripts all the more challenging. If a manuscript has been documented, catalogued, and digitized, very often the artistic elements or ornamental features are not scanned or are left out of the manuscript’s description. In many cases, libraries that make digitized copies available of manuscripts usually then close off public access to the actual physical copies except in special circumstances. Hence, for those researchers engaging in research that involves studying the manuscript as a historical artifact, this can make tracing materials extremely challenging.

Given these challenges, the search process for a researcher can initially feel quite daunting. In some collections, one may be required to peruse collections by hand since the items have not been catalogued yet. Yet in other situations, especially in digitized collections, an item may be mislabeled, requiring the researcher to peruse large sections of the collection by hand as well. With patience and persistence, however, many a researcher has emerged from the stacks not only with the items they have been looking for, but with “treasures” they never expected to find. The items I never expected to find, which I found precisely because I perused materials individually and by hand, have often become more important to my projects than the ones I had initially set out to procure. This reason, along with the simple joy of being able to handle and examine the handwritten texts of books hundreds of years old, is what makes this type of research so rewarding for me, and the sort of pursuit I hope to continue engaging in for many years.

Written by Sarah Islam

Sarah Islam is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Princeton University and a 2015–2016 ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellow. She has an M.A. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies (2010) from Princeton and a B.A. in Political Science (2006) from the University of Texas. To read more, please visit her page on the Princeton University website.

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