The Mysterious Collector Who Founded Our Islamic Manuscript Collection

The collector Yohanan Ben David left his art collection to the Israel Museum and his manuscript collection to the National Library of Israel. The latter bequest formed the core of the Library’s Islamic manuscript collection. Despite his considerable stature in the art world, he is largely unfamiliar to the general public. Here we take a look at the life of this enigmatic collector.

Early one morning in 1969, two cars from the Israeli Embassy pulled up outside an ordinary-looking apartment building in North London. One of the building’s residents, the collector Yohanan Ben David, had recently died and left his entire art collection to the State of Israel. “A wonderful collection,” he once wrote, “that is unparalleled even compared to the British Museum and the museum in Cairo”. Parts of the collection were displayed in the early twentieth century in highly-regarded galleries, but no one really knew its true dimensions and contents.

When the embassy staff entered the various rooms of the apartment, which had been locked behind closed doors for some time, they discovered a treasure trove of manuscripts, carpets, armaments and various artifacts from India and Persia. Faced with the surprising amount of material, they quickly called for more staff and cars to transport the collection to the embassy. From there it made its way bit by bit to Israel via diplomatic mail.

Yohanan Ben David’s collection forms the basis of the Israel Museum’s collection of Islamic art and the early foundations of the collection of Islamic manuscripts at the National Library of Israel. However, despite the large and impressive assortment of cultural artifacts, which is indicative of the expertise and unique taste of their former owner, Ben David remains almost unknown to the general public.

Hookah bowl in the Qajari style, Iran, 19th century. Tin-plated copper, gold inlay.  The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Estate of Yohanan Ben David, London. 2017.040.0344. Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Yohanan Ben David (Yuhannah Dawud in Persian) was born in 1885 to a wealthy Jewish family from Tehran, Iran. His family wandered between Persia and India, and in 1907, the 22-year-old Yohanan arrived in England to study art history and literature at Cambridge University. After his studies, he began advising various collectors, including Henri Moser. While advising others, he also began assembling his own collection of manuscripts. In 1920, he donated a number of Persian manuscripts to the British Library, mainly letters of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and several other writings related to the Bahai faith. In 1925, he donated a number of manuscripts to the Jewish National and University Library. Prof. David Eder, a physician and Zionist activist who worked in England on behalf of the Hebrew University, recommended accepting the donation. Eder wrote to Hugo Bergmann, then head of the Library, that Ben David’s donation of manuscripts would be a welcome addition to the Oriental Studies Collection which was then being established. According to Bergmann, Ben David’s manuscripts would balance the recently arrived Ignac Goldziher book collection. In 1925, Yohanan Ben David donated 39 manuscripts on various subjects to the Library. Among the most important are decorated manuscripts of the Persian poets Hafez, Jalal al-Din Rumi and Jami. He also contributed several writings of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i religion.

Persian miniature, Yohanan Ben David Collection

According to Dr. Sivan Lehrer of the Hebrew University, Ben David was hardly the only Jew to adopt the Baha’i religion alongside his original faith. There were quite a few Jews of Persian origin who did the same. In 1911, the son of the founder of the Bahai faith, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, traveled to London and Paris in order to meet with his followers. While there, he officiated at Ben David’s marriage to Regina Khanum. In the book about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey, it is written that the bride’s family had been followers of Bahá’u’lláh since his days in Iraq. In the book, Ben David expresses loyalty to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but also is careful to emphasize his Jewish identity, for example, by noting the Hebrew date alongside that of the Gregorian calendar. In the family album he prepared one can also find the Jewish deed of terms for his marriage to Regina.

Scribe’s pen case decorated with the images of three Qajari kings. Signed by Abu al-Hassan al-Afari, Isfahan, Iran, Qajari style, painted and varnished paper mache. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, estate of Yohanan Ben David, London. B69.0747. Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Oded Lobel

In 1946, Ben David made another donation to the National Library of 56 manuscripts, mainly on subjects of Islamic law. In 1965, he wrote to the Library’s director, Prof. Curt David Wormann, asking to donate the rest of his collection in exchange for conditions that would allow him to come to Israel and help catalog the materials. He was not able to realize his desire to immigrate to Israel, and passed away in England several years later.

Yohanan Ben David was a very spiritual person. His archive, which can be found at the National Library of Israel, contains hundreds of handwritten notes in which he formulated his ideas about God, the Jewish people and the mission of the faithful in this world. These drafts formed the basis for more complete theological essays in which he elaborated his theological doctrine regarding the status of the Jewish people in the world. For example, in a work he compiled in memory of his brother Yekutiel, he claims that circumcision is the sign of the Jewish people who were chosen and protected by God in order to declare God’s truth to the world, and “establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven”. This wording is nearly identical to that of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer”. Ben David’s mixing of traditions displays the flexibility he allowed himself in adopting different traditions which he consolidated into his unique spiritual approach.

Page from the essay Yohanan Ben David prepared in memory of his brother

Among the unique items in Ben David’s archive is a family history book he created. It is decorated with verses that Ben David wrote and tastefully adorned with parts of manuscripts which he cut out and pasted as frames around various photos and certificates.

Yohanan Ben David’s special personality and impressive collection has inspired three exhibitions. Two by textile artist Katia Oicherman, “The Collector’s Room” and “Rendering of Writings” as well as “No Thing Dies” by photographer Ilit Azoulay.

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

Dala’il al-Khayrat: Depicting Mecca Across the Islamic World

The hajj pilgrimage is a life-shaping experience for millions of Muslims around the world. It culminates with the arrival at the Holy Mosque in Mecca. These manuscripts from the collections of the National Library of Israel depict the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina in colorful illustrations, an artistic expression of faith that continues to evolve…

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel.

Can a selfie be sacred? Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj. These days, however, there is no need to make the journey to Saudi Arabia to be a part of the experience. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms are flooded with pilgrim posts; #hajjselfie is always trending during the ten days of the pilgrimage, which began this year on July 7.

While some claim today that hajj selfies are narcissistic and defy the pilgrimage’s spiritual purpose, others argue that such images are an important way to remember a pivotal experience and share it with others. And, in fact, picturing the holy places–if in paintings and drawings rather than selfies–has served to connect Muslims with the pilgrimage for hundreds of years.

Dala’il al-Khayrat (Signs of Benevolent Deeds) is a fifteenth century Arabic work containing a series of prayers and blessings for the Prophet Muhammad. Written by the Moroccan Sufi mystic Muhammad al-Jazuli, it is the most-reproduced Islamic devotional text after the Qur’an. Alongside the devotional content, Dala’il al-Khayrat manuscripts from North Africa to India also include illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina and the Holy Mosque in Mecca. But as the dozens of manuscripts in the National Library of Israel collections show, depictions of Mecca and ideas about its veneration have shifted across space and time; each Muslim community has pictured the sacred sites in light of its own culture.

The undated North African manuscript you can see here contains a two-page spread depicting Mecca on the right and Medina on the left. The image of Mecca shows the Holy Mosque with the dark cube of the Ka‘ba in the center. This is the most sacred site in Islam, and circumambulating the Ka‘ba, known as the House of God, is the central ritual of the hajj. The meeting-places of the four canonical Islamic schools of law, represented by rectangles with red triangular roofs, surround the Ka‘ba. The image’s calligraphic script, colors, and braided borders mark this image as distinctly North African.

Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, North Africa, seventeenth century. The white tape obscuring the Ka‘ba was added by a later owner. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

The use of abstraction and labeling in this image makes it look more like a map than a painting. The details show us that the artist is interested in mapping spiritual rather than physical space. For example, the buildings and minarets that surround the Ka‘ba are all oriented towards it. This emphasizes the role of the Ka‘ba as the spiritual center of the universe. In addition, the space around the Ka‘ba is divided into four quarters, each labeled with a geographic location, creating a global spiritual geography with the Ka‘ba at its heart. Through this illumination, we see that North African traditions venerated Mecca by emphasizing its centrality in Muslim spiritual geography.

Across the Middle East, in late eighteenth century India, Mecca was imagined in a markedly different way. This manuscript of the Dala’il perhaps originates in Kashmir, a region whose artistic style was heavily influenced by North Indian Mughal manuscripts as well as Persian manuscripts. The illumination of Mecca in this copy reflects both of these traditions.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, possibly Kashmir, nineteenth century. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

In the image of the Sacred Mosque on the right, the Ka‘ba is again surrounded by the study-places of the four schools of Islamic law, here shown topped with domes. The decorations and color palette reflect both Persian and Mughal influence on local Kashmiri traditions. For example, the key-shaped multi-lobed arches that can be seen in some of  the small domed outbuildings are derived from North Indian Mughal architecture. The small, repeated floral patterns that form the background are also common in both Mughal and Persian manuscripts.

The elaborate decoration in this image highlights the importance of Mecca. Using decoration to indicate significance and holiness is a long-established tradition in Islamic manuscripts, beginning with the use of illumination in the Qur’an itself to highlight the importance of the text. Lavishing the image of Mecca with sumptuous decoration communicates the importance and holiness of this key site.

The last manuscript comes from Ottoman Turkey, the seat of the caliphate and the heart of the Islamic world when it was copied in 1795. The illustrations in this manuscript depict Mecca and Medina from a bird’s-eye view in a classic example of European-style perspective. The Ka‘ba and its outbuildings are shown as three-dimensional and the painting’s light shines from a single source. The colors are likewise naturalistic. The European influence on this illustration reflects the broader context of artistic exchange between the Ottoman Empire and its European neighbors. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire increased diplomatic relationships with Europe, creating new opportunities for artists to explore one another’s traditions. As part of this exchange, Ottoman artists became interested in the conventions of European illusionistic painting and began to incorporate techniques such as perspective, modeling, and shading into their work.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

While the North African image of Mecca emphasizes spiritual geography and the Kashmiri illustration uses decoration as a form of emphasis and veneration, in the Ottoman illumination the veneration of Mecca is linked to Ottoman political power in the region. The Ottoman sultans gained control of Mecca and Medina and became khādim al-haramayn al-sharifayn, the “servants of the two holy sanctuaries,” in the fifteenth century, and depictions of Mecca became more and more popular in the Ottoman Empire immediately thereafter. Visually, this image reflects Ottoman cartography, which also used bird’s-eye view perspective derived from European maps, suggesting that depictions of Mecca were linked to depictions of other kinds of political territory in the expanding empire. Ottoman illustrations of Mecca venerate the holy city by portraying it as a key political territory and highlighting the sacred duty of the Ottoman Empire to protect the holy cities and all pilgrims who travel to them.



Further Reading:

Abid, Hiba. “The Birth of a Successful Prayer Book: The Manuscript Tradition of the Dala’il al-Khayrat in North Africa.” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 12 (2021): 265-294.

Beyazit, Deniz. “Defining Ottoman Realism in the Uppsala Mecca Painting.” Muqarnas 37 (2020): 209–245.

Roxburgh, David J. “Pilgrimage City.” In The City in the Islamic World, edited by Renata Holod et al, 753-774. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Witkam, Jan Just. “The battle of the images. Mecca vs. Medina in the iconography of the manuscripts of al-Jazūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.” In Theoretical approaches to the transmission and edition of Oriental manuscripts. Proceedings of a symposium held in Istanbul, March 28-30, 2001. Ed. Judith Peiffer, Manfred Kropp, 67-82. Beirut: Ergon Verlag Würzburg in Kommission, 2007.