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.

Rachel Goldberg

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.


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