The Female Scholar Behind Iraq’s Independence

Gertrude Bell refused to heed the dictates of conservative British society. Instead, she toured Africa and Asia, becoming an important scholar and an adviser on the Middle East for the British Empire

غيرترود بيل

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was a female pioneer. The daughter of wealthy industrialists, she was born into a life of comfort with a clearly defined path set out, one ending in marriage and family. It was a life she wasn’t interested in, since Gertrude, who stood out for her intelligence from an early age (she received first-degree honors in modern history at Oxford in just two years), had no desire to spend her days attending balls and tea parties.

After she completed her studies, she spent some two years in the social circles of London, but failed to take a real interest in them. At 24, she went to visit her uncle, then Britain’s ambassador to Tehran. This visit ignited Bell’s love of the Middle East, and she would return to the region again and again for extended periods of time.

Bell published a number of books. The first, released in 1894, was dedicated to her experiences during her first trip to Iran, and titled Safar Nameh, Persian Pictures: A Book of Travel. In 1897, she published an English translation of the Divān of Hafez, a classic collection of Persian poetry. Her other books deal with her experiences and scholarly impressions from her trips across the Middle East.

Interestingly, she hardly wrote anything on her great trek to Ha’il in the Arabian Peninsula. Ha’il is a harsh and dangerous desert region, and Bell was only the second woman to ever cross it successfully. Her skill at riding horses helped her on her journey. Although she rejected the life of luxury she was born into, she was known for always bringing along a Wedgewood set of China and lavender soap.

Bucking the custom of the time, Bell travelled alone. Josephine Kamm, who wrote a brief biography of Bell, wondered whether Bell would have continued her life of adventure and travelling to distant lands if she had married her first love Henry Cadogan, who died of pneumonia.

Her expertise in the history, geography, and politics of the Middle East made her a central figure in Britain’s struggles in the region during and after the First World War. Indeed, Bell was among the major participants at the Cairo Conference convened in 1921 by Winston Churchill, then serving as Colonial Secretary.

The Cairo Conference of 1921. Source: Wikipedia

Gertrude Bell stands out in photos from the conference in that she was the only woman among the dozens of men who took part. She was not invited as a “token” but as an adviser to the British High Commissioner in Iraq. The conference aimed to find a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in WWI and to resolve the contradictory promises given by the British and French to the Arabs during the war years. Bell and Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Iraq, presented their plan for the country, based on Bell’s acquaintance with the different tribes of the area and her vision for Iraq. The plan was adopted without objection by Churchill and other participants of the conference. In line with decisions taken at Cairo, Gertrude Bell proceeded to aid Faisal, of the Hashemite dynasty, in becoming the first King of Iraq.

After the founding of modern Iraq, she returned to her first great love: archaeology. She established the Iraqi National Museum, and helped to pass a law stating that antiquities excavated in a particular location would remain in the country where they had been dug up.

Gertrude Bell died in Iraq in July 1926, from an overdose of sleeping pills. There is some dispute as to whether this overdose was intentional or accidental; her letters to her stepmother do not suggest suicidal tendencies, though she did ask her friends to care for her pets if anything happened to her.

At the National Library of Israel, one can find a collection of Persian poetry dedicated to Gertrude Bell. The book was dedicated in 1921 to this exceptional, trailblazing woman, who stood out so remarkably in the Middle East of those days.

The item reached the National Library courtesy of Abraham Shalom Yahuda. Yahuda was a well-known trader in manuscripts who donated his impressive collection to the National Library in 1951, along with his personal archive. The Yahuda Collection includes thousands of Islamic manuscripts covering the fundamental cornerstones of Muslim culture: Qurans, Hadiths, Islamic law, and the sciences. The collection also includes Christian books of hours as well as the theological writings of Isaac Newton.

But how did a manuscript dedicated to Gertrude Bell reach Abraham Shalom Yahuda and ultimately end up in the National Library? Gertrude Bell’s archive at Newcastle University contains her letters and diaries, donated by her stepmother. A search of the archive reveals that Bell and Yahuda crossed paths in 1902, on the deck of the S.S. Cleopatra, a ship which sailed from Izmir to Haifa. Yahuda was in the company of a group of Americans whom Bell also befriended. In a letter to her stepmother, she describes Abraham Shalom Yahuda in unflattering terms.

This only strengthens the question: If Abraham Shalom Yahuda and Gertrude Bell met only once, and weren’t even friendly, how did her manuscript end up in his possession?

A manuscript that once belonged to Gertrude Bell, and which somehow ended up in Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s possession

 

Lab Results Confirm: This Ibn Sina Manuscript Is Nearly 1000 Years Old

A manuscript attributed to the famous 11th-century Persian physician and philosopher Ibn Sina has created a scholarly stir regarding its dating. Is it contemporary with the author? If so, this would make it an important and reliable copy. Or was it copied a few hundred years after his death? There was only one way to find out...

رسم ابن سينا من مخطوطة تعود للعصور الوسطى بعنوان subtitles of truth من عام 1271 (المصدر ويكيبيديا)، وهاجر ميلمان، مختصّة حفظ وترميم في مختبر الحفظ والترميم في المكتبة الوطنيّة الإسرائيليّة، وهي تقطع برفق خط رفيع من المخطوطة.

Ibn Sina, as he appears in the medieval manuscript titled Subtleties of Truth, 1271 (source: Wikipedia), and Hagar Milman, of the Conservation and Restoration Laboratory at the National Library of Israel, as she delicately cuts a sample from the edge of a manuscript page

“Scalpel,” says a woman in a white lab coat, holding out her hand while standing over a brightly lit table. Knife in hand, she then leans over and begins making the incision.

The “patient” on the operating table is not a person, but a manuscript whose date of writing, or rather of copying, is the subject of debate.

The purpose of the “operation” is to determine how old this manuscript truly is. This will be done by analyzing the sample that has been extracted in an external laboratory. The results of the test will have significant implications, for this is no ordinary manuscript but one that is attributed to the renowned 11th-century Persian philosopher and physician Ibn Sina.

Ibn Sina, as he appears in the medieval manuscript Subtleties of Truth, 1271. Source: Wikipedia

Ibn Sina is considered one of the most important thinkers of the Islamic world, and he is part of a small group of Islamic thinkers who were renowned in their own lifetime, both in the Islamic world and in Europe, where he was known as “Avicenna.”

Ibn Sina rose to prominence at a young age as a respected physician and philosopher. His early fame came when he was called to the bedside of the Sultan of Persia who had been suffering from a prolonged illness. Ibn Sina was able to heal the Sultan when the court physicians could not. His reward was access to the royal library, a development which spurred him on to write many different works, including his famous text on the philosophy of science known as the Book of Healing (Kitab al-Shifa).

First page of the manuscript the Book of Healing (Kitab al-Shifa), in the collection of the National Library of Israel

During his short life, Ibn Sina managed to compose hundreds of works. In the Library’s collections there are hundreds of manuscripts of Ibn Sina’s writings as well as later commentaries on them. But two in particular stand out: one in the field of medicine and the other in various fields of science.

Ibn Sina’s uniqueness in these two works is his overarching approach, which included mapping the entire field of knowledge, and dividing it into clear categories. Moreover, he critically examined these categories, presenting his own insights in each and every field. This method of examining the different categories critically, especially in the field of medicine, eventually became the basis of modern medicine – an approach formally known as “evidence-based medicine”.

The Book of Healing includes four volumes, each of which is dedicated to a different subject. In the Library’s collections is the first volume, which deals with logic. The other volumes deal with the natural sciences, psychology, computational sciences (geometry, mathematics, music and astronomy) and metaphysics. The Book of Healing is a survey of all the fields of science known at the time of its composition. Its uniqueness and importance, as already noted, lies in its structure, which became the standard for all books of philosophy that came after it.

The first volume of the Book of Healing was donated to the National Library as part of the vast collection of the eminent researcher, writer and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda. The cataloger of the collection, Efraim Wust, recorded the details of this unique manuscript in the Library catalog. Every book cataloged in the Library includes the known or estimated year of its creation.

However, there was no clear date for the creation of this manuscript inside the manuscript itself, and in the catalog entry for it West listed the date as “1050” followed by a question mark. It is not clear what led West to assign this date to the manuscript. Was it an informed assessment perhaps based on the paper or the type of ink, or was it just a gut feeling?

Screenshot of the National Library catalog for the manuscript Kitab al-Shafa (Book of Healing). The catalog shows all the basic data related to every item in the National Library of Israel, and here prominently listed is the date: 1050?

But what is the importance of dating a manuscript anyway?

A manuscript copied during an author’s lifetime is usually indicative of the standing and reputation of the author and is considered more important than one copied after the author’s death because the wording will be closer to the original. It should be noted that there are very few manuscripts of Kitab al-Shafa from Ibn Sina’s lifetime. The discovery of an additional copy made during his lifetime might shed further light on the original wording of this important treatise.

There are several ways to date a manuscript. The easiest way is if the manuscript contains a colophon, that is, a note written by the copyist of the manuscript in which he notes when the copy was completed and sometimes also additional details about the manuscript. One finds colophons in many manuscripts, but as mentioned, not in this one.

An example of a colophon, which often appears in the form of a triangle, one of whose points face downward. From a manuscript in the collection of the National Library of Israel

In the absence of a colophon, there are other less direct ways for dating a manuscript that involve examining various details of the item – the title page and the information it contains, notes, seals of the manuscript’s previous owners or notes of consent for the study of the book (adjazat). However, many early manuscripts do not have a title page at all! Sometimes marginal notations can also shed light on the date a manuscript was copied.

In addition, the physical material from which the manuscript is made may also serve to indicate its time of origin – the type of paper, the type of ink, colors and decorations, the calligraphy, the numbering of the pages or the number of quires, and the like. However, the codicologist (a scientist who studies the materials from which books were made) of the Islamic Collection at the National Library of Israel warns against trying to date a manuscript (or even a printed book) by its cover because that part of a book can be easily replaced.

One thing that may help to pin down the date of a manuscript is the type of paper – its quality, its texture, its degree of transparency, the surface gloss and color, and its firmness or flexibility. Looking at the type of paper of the manuscript under discussion, we can clearly see these things. For example, one can see the fibers from which the paper is made and also some darker areas on the paper, which help to date when the manuscript was written.

Since its arrival at the National Library, there have been various opinions regarding the date the manuscript was copied: some argued that the manuscript was indeed contemporary with Ibn Sina, while others claimed that the manuscript was copied after the author’s death.

The issue became more acute when a specialist in Islamic codicology from Italy approached the Library with questions about the date in the catalog, and claimed that it was copied 200 years later. The Library staff decided to check once and for all in order to unequivocally solve the question of the manuscript’s dating.

Marcela Szekely, the Head of Conservation and Restoration at the National Library of Israel, asked Professor Elisabetta Boaretto to use radiocarbon dating, known to be the most reliable method for dating paper. Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto, a world-renowned expert in the field, came to the National Library to collect a sample of the manuscript.

An “operation” to extract a sample was performed. Since this is an invasive type of test, the operation was preceded by a long discussion between Marcela Szekely and Professor Boaretto about how and from where to take the sample. The initial thought was to conduct the test on the ink used in the manuscript. But in the end, in order to minimize damage to the manuscript as much as possible, it was decided to take the sample from the sides of several pages in the form of an elongated strip and not in the form of a rectangle as is usually the case.

Prof. Boaretto wraps the specimen from the manuscript in foil paper for transport to the lab at the Weizmann Institute for radiocarbon dating

This test, also known as the radiometric method, is based on the fact that every organic substance has a constant rate of radioactive decay. Thus, the older an object, the smaller the amount of radioactive carbon that will be found in it. Research in the field has developed significantly over the years, and today this method can be used to date any inanimate object of organic origin going back 50 thousand years. It was also decided to test for the composition of the paper at the same time. The test was carried out at the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot under the supervision of Prof. Boaretto.

Prof. Marcela Szekely, Head of Conservation and Restoration (left) and Prof. Boaretto (right) with the Kitab al Shifa manuscript. Every special request to view an ancient manuscript or rare item takes place in a room dedicated for this purpose, with the item placed on a special cushion for its protection.

When the answer finally came back from Prof. Boaretto, it was clear that the collector and cataloger had both been right and their gut feeling was accurate: the manuscript is not from the 14th century, but dates to between the years 1040–1160 at the latest, shortly after the death of Ibn Sina in 1037. It was also discovered that the source of the paper is cellulose. Further tests will be performed to discover the type of fibers from which the paper was made. This is another example of how science comes to the aid of history to help us to learn more about the Library’s cultural treasures which are available to the general public for reference and research.

The article was compiled with the assistance of Marcela Szekely, head of the Department of Conservation and Restoration at the National Library of Israel.

Animals, Monsters and Far-Off Lands

What do mythological beasts and imaginary creatures have to do with the Mongol conquest?

عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات، 1659، المكتبة الوطنية

Zakriyya al-Qazwini could not run fast enough.

Born in 1203 in the Iranian city of Qazvin, he spent his life either fleeing Chinggis Khan’s Mongol armies, which by 1283 had forged an empire stretching from China to Eastern Europe, or racing to find his place in the world the Mongol conquests had left behind.

Zakriyya al-Qazwini’s The Wonders of the Creatures and the Marvels of Creation, 1659

In 1220, Qazwini left his native town for Mosul and then Baghdad. Still, the conquerors caught up with him in the Iraqi town of Wasit, where they murdered 40,000 inhabitants. The Mongols spared intellectuals, artisans, and others they deemed useful, and thus Qazwini, a legal scholar and judge, was not killed. He continued his career under his new patrons, serving as judge and a teacher at the city’s al-Sharabiyya college.

However, the shock that the Mongol conquest delivered to Qazwini and Islamic civilization as a whole cannot be overstated. And so, when Qazwini came to write The Wonders of the Creatures and the Marvels of Creation, the book for which he is best known, he sought to reassure his readers that the order of the cosmos remained secure. The book is an encyclopedic summary of the created world, proceeding in order from the heavens above to the earth below. Illustrations of the constellations, angels, animals, plants, and other creatures, including mythical beasts and fantastic men, accompany the text.

Zakriyya al-Qazwini’s The Wonders of the Creatures and the Marvels of Creation, 1659

The manuscript seen here, copied in Baghdad in 1659, is a perfect example of Qazwini’s orderly world. As a Turkish translation, it also demonstrates how widely Qazwini’s book was read and copied over the centuries, making it one of the most ubiquitous Islamic illustrated books.

An Arab Qur’an with a Persian Identity

The Persian language as we know it today emerged after the Arab conquests of the 8th century CE. One of the National Library of Israel’s treasured manuscripts contains the first known example of New Persian to appear on the world stage...

Not much is known about Ahmad Hikani. He lived in the 9th century CE, probably in the Khorasan region of eastern Iran, the birthplace of many Islamic scholars during the religion’s early period. What is certain is that his knowledge of Arabic was extensive enough that he was able to properly vowelize a text in that language—and not just any text, but the Qur’an itself.

Yet, despite our lack of information about him, Ahmad Hikani is a key figure in Iranian history: his name is tied to a revolution in the Persian language that occurred in the Middle Ages.

Our story begins with a manuscript of the Qur’an purchased by the famous collector Abraham Shalom Yehuda. This manuscript, which includes only part of the Qur’an, from Surah An-Nahl (The Palms, No. 17) to Surah Al-Khaf (The Cave, No. 18), was copied on parchment, with gold ornamental decoration signaling the beginning of each chapter, and dots marking the vocalization of each word. These markings, in addition to the square Arabic script, known as “Kufic script,” hint at this Qur’an’s antiquity.

How ancient, you may ask? A handwritten comment, called a colophon, placed at the end of the Qur’an by the scribe who emended the vocalization in the manuscript, reveals that this Qur’an was copied in the year 905. What is special about this comment is that it is written in Persian in Arabic letters. This is, in fact, the first known appearance of the language known as New Persian, written in Arabic letters, on the historical stage.

The first page of the partial Qur’an with the verse recalling the Prophet Muhammad’s “Night Journey”

 

The colophon reads:

این جزء سی پاره جمله درست بکرد بعجم ونقط وتشدید احمد خیقانی نصره الله فی الدین بمنه سنه اثنی وتسعین واثنی مایه

“Ahmad Hikani, may God in his grace preserve us in the bosom of the faith, emended this portion of the 30 portions [of the Qur’an] by adding marks [diacritics], vowel signs and the shaddah sign [= a doubling of a consonant], in  the year 292 [AH, 905 CE].”

The colophon

The uniqueness of New Persian, also known as Modern Persian, is on the one hand the preservation of characteristics of the “Middle” Persian language, the one that preceded the Islamic conquests, and on the other the conversion of the ancient Persian script into Arabic letters and the entry of new vocabulary into the Persian language. This move is indicative of an independent Persian identity, distinct from that of the Arabs who came to Iran with the conquests of the Muslim armies in the early years of Islam.

When Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula in the first centuries after its emergence, it encountered the Persian and Greek cultures, the two pillars of the ancient world. Greek culture was by this point in its Byzantine incarnation, and was common in the eastern Mediterranean basin. Its language was Greek and Christianity was the dominant religion. Persian culture, on the other hand, was common in Central Asia, the language spoken was Persian, and Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion.

While the Greek language, once dominant in the Mediterranean basin, gradually disappeared as Arab-Muslim rule took root in the region, the inhabitants of the former Persian Empire, now under Arab-Muslim rule, tended in a different direction. Instead of adopting Arabic as their dominant language, they adopted Arabic script into the Persian language and created a new language: New Persian.

The change was not immediate: between the seventh and tenth centuries Middle Persian gradually disappeared, reappearing in the tenth century in its new form, New Persian. The changes that the language underwent, that is – what elements were abandoned, what elements were adopted from Arabic and what was preserved from Middle Persian, can be seen in the Judeo-Persian writings from the period. Judeo-Persian, or New Persian written in Hebrew letters, is important for the study of the development of the New Persian language, because some of the texts in early Judeo-Persian have preserved some of Middle Persian’s linguistic features.

Judeo-Persian Manuscript of a commentary to Leviticus 11 from the Afghan Geniza

The distinction between Persian and Arabic identities does not mean rejection of Islam or of the importance of the Arabic language. In the Middle Ages, Persian scholars traveled to centers of knowledge in the Arabic-speaking world in order to study and teach. They even wrote in Arabic on many and varied topics, from the study of Islamic law to history and geography.

The Qur’an we presented at the beginning of the article is an example of the combination of Persian identity and acceptance of Arabic as an important language. The Qur’an was copied in Arabic because that is the language of the Qur’an. The colophon, as a personal expression of the copyist, Ahmad Hikani, expresses his own Persian identity.

Over the years, Persian identity, which took shape alongside, in the shadow of and sometimes even in opposition to Arabic identity, has become more pronounced and emphasized. Today, this distinct identity is also expressed in national and religious aspects that set it apart from the identities of the Arab world.

 

Thanks to Dr. Ofir Haim for translating the colophon