Deciphering the Oriental Manuscripts

© Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies

©Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies

A landmark in humanity’s documentary heritage, the manuscript collection from Abu Rayhan al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies is now presented and mapped in a new book, published by UNESCO Office in Tashkent: “The Treasury of Oriental Manuscripts”. Listed on UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 1997, this collection reflects the role of this part of the world as a cross-road of the Silk Road and its importance in the development of Islamic science and culture from 9th to the 20th century. “The treasury of Oriental Manuscripts” takes us within the vast region of Central Asia, the Arab World and Persia through the numerous manuscripts and represents an insight of the region and the development of the world. It constitutes a valuable source of scientific treaties, literature, history reviews, diaries, chronicle of cultural and political developments for the researchers.

© Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies

Named after the great medieval scholar and thinker of the Islamic world Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1050), the Institute of Oriental Studies’ collection of manuscripts counts more than 26,000 manuscripts and 39,000 lithographs. Diverse and rich by the broad range of subjects the collection includes, it is also immensely valuable for the luxurious frontispieces and richly decorated bindings from silver and colored enamel, as well as exquisite calligraphy.

The manuscripts are written in many languages from the Oriental peoples, such as Uzbek, Arabic, Persian, Tajik, Urdu, Pashtu, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Tatar, Turkmen, and Uyghur and then  translated in different  at different periods, showing us the interrelations of the people, enhanced by the Silk Road. But it also shows how knowledge and ideas circulated within the region. Can one imagine that those manuscripts have been transported in the same carriages as the goods on the Silk Road from the far end of Asia to Europe? Knowledge and culture has its way of passing through time and geography, as these manuscripts remind us of the dialogue between cultures as an essential part of intellectual development. For example, we learn in this book that the most common genre of philosophy works were translation and liberal restatements of Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, Plato and Alexander of Aphrodisias.

The collection covers various branches of medieval sciences. Approximately, 1,000 works contain historical content about universal and regional histories. One of the manuscripts is a historical review of primarily Iran, written in 1414 by Khafiz-I Abru, a famous historian from the epoch of Tamerlan, letting us travel through the manuscript as he, himself did in his time. The manuscripts about natural and exact sciences cover a wide variety of subjects like mathematics especially calculations, which were used for architecture.  A number of manuscripts deal with astronomical knowledge that was necessary in the Middle-Age for calendars, or finding geographic coordinates and itineraries of caravan routes through steppes and deserts. Literary works of poetry and prose in Arabic, Persian and Uzbek are also predominant in the collection. The polyphonic space of the region reinvented itself over the centuries throughout the arts and the richness of languages.  The majority of the collection can be classified under the category “Islam and Philosophy”, gathering for example 1,200 manuscripts on the interpretation and science of recitation (tafsirs) of the Koran. A large part of the collection is devoted also to Islamic philosophy, logic, ethics and advice literature and Sufism, a popular mystical-philosophical movement within Islam in Middle-East and Central Asia. 

© Marco Di Bella ; Islamic Bookbinding

The art of calligraphy is also covered, as well as miniature illustrations in the manuscripts and specific features of their bindings. Furthermore, it investigates the development of paper production and describes the different paper types used.

The book “The Treasury of Oriental Manuscripts” is published in Uzbek, English and Russian languages, with the generous support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the UNESCO office in Tashkent and the Al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies within the framework of UNESCO project “Preservation of manuscripts of Al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies”.       

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