Manuscript Cultures in Medieval Syria
Manuscript Cultures in Medieval Syria
Towards a history of the Qubbat al-khazna depository in Damascus
2-day conference in Berlin, Thursday/Friday, 28/29 June 2018
Organised by Arianna D’Ottone Rambach (Sapienza - Università di Roma), Konrad Hirschler (Freie Universität Berlin), Ronny Vollandt (LMU München), Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften
The Qubbat al-khazna of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus stands as one of the most significant, albeit little known and poorly researched, manuscript repositories in the Middle East. ‘Academically discovered’ in 1900, the Qubba stands in the Mosque’s courtyard and had a function similar to that of its more famous twin, the Cairo Gheniza, i.e. a depository for worn-out books and disused documents. From this stash myriads of parchment and paper documents have emerged, mostly Muslim literary and legal texts in Arabic, from copies of the Qurʾān and theological works to pilgrimage certificates and marriage contracts. However, among them are also numerous Jewish, Samaritan, and Christian writings in a large variety of languages, including Arabic, Syriac, Christian-Palestinian Aramaic, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Greek, Latin, and Old French.
The two-day conference that will take place in Berlin (28-29 June 2018), hosted by the Freie Universität Berlin and the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, will gather for the first time scholars from the different disciplines concerned with this rich multilingual manuscript material. The particular way of preservation of this material, a paradigmatic case of genizah-like practice in an Islamic context, offers a unique opportunity to deal with cultural life in Damascus, animated by different languages and identities, through many centuries. This international and multi-disciplinary conference is of particular importance on account of the multilingual nature of the material and because access to this material has been extremely difficult.
Damascus is furthermore an ideal city for a study of the phenomenon of urban, cultural and linguistic continuity between Antiquity and Middle Ages. The site of the Umayyad Great Mosque is built on the site of the temple of the Semitic god Haddad, who was later equated with Damascene Jupiter in the Græco-roman pantheon. In Late Antiquity the temple was replaced by the cathedral of St. John the Baptiste, which, in 705, was converted into a mosque. In the north-western corner of the mosque's courtyard there is an octagonal dome, standing on small columns with capitals salvaged from the Late-antique church. It was inside this dome, which could be entered only by means of a removable stair and through a door usually walled up, that the documents were found.
On the occasion of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s second journey to the East in 1898, Hermann von Soden (a biblical philologist and professor at the University of Berlin since 1893) obtained the permission from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to have the Damascus Qubba opened in May 1900. Von Soden asked for a specialist to come from Berlin in order to evaluate the material that he expected to find: Bruno Violet, another biblical philologist, who obtained permission to access the Damascus findings for his studies on the New Testament. He reached Damascus at the end of May 1900 and saw the fragments for the first time on June 16th 1900. It is important to mention that Violet did not have direct access to the Qubba: sacks filled with scraps were taken from the Qubba by Mosque workers and brought to a small room nearby where Violet could see them. According to his reports, he managed to see the contents of 150 sacks: he worked on them from June to December 1900, and then again from March to June 1901, grouping and classifying the scraps according to languages and scripts. The prompt – and correct – understanding of the documentary ensemble as a case of Islamic genizah is noteworthy. This identification was facilitated by the fact that just a few years before, in 1897, Salomon Schechter had transferred about 140,000 fragments – about two-third of the original find – from the Jewish Genizah in Cairo to the Cambridge University Library.
The discovery was announced officially, by Hermann von Soden, in Berlin on 30 July 1903, during a meeting of the Academy of Sciences. However, information about the find was already available thanks to the publication, between October 15th and December 15th, 1901, of three papers by Bruno Violet concerning a bilingual Greek-Arabic Psalterium in Greek script. Most importantly, for modern research, Violet took during his stay in Damascus photographs of some manuscripts and over 200 have re-emerged in the last years (currently held in the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften).
The following autumn the first scholarly studies were published and the idea was mooted that a selection of non-Muslim and non-Arabic materials should be brought to Berlin so that a group of specialists in patristic studies, oriental languages and medieval French literature, could evaluate the most interesting and valuable items. Abdul Hamid II authorized that this selection would be sent to Berlin as a loan. Before the fragments were dispatched, however, the whole batch was inventoried and photographed for future reference by Ottoman authorities. Inventory and photographs are said to have been deposited in two places, the Foreign Ministry and the Topkapı Library, but so far no traces of them have been found. The number of fragments, at this time, was given as 1558. The collection arrived in Berlin 17 June 1902, was first deposited at the Royal Museums and after 1904 at the State Library. It consisted mainly of Jewish and Christian texts in a variety of scripts and languages: Greek, Hebrew, Samaritan, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic and even Armenian. This group of fragments from the Damascus Genizah remained in the Berlin Museumbibliothek (the modern Staatsbibliothek) until 1909, when they were sent back to Damascus. Before being sent back, some 100 photographs of fragments were taken (and are still held by the Staatsbibliothek), but the whereabouts of the originals are – once again – unknown to this day.
Violet was almost exclusively working on non-Arabic material, which is a sizable and significant corpus, but a minority within the Damascus Genizah. The larger part, was transferred to Istanbul during World War I and is today deposited in The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi), where the collection is called şâm evrakları “Damascus papers”. This transfer was not comprehensive and some Arabic items have remained in Damascus, currently housed in the National Museum and Museum of Calligraphy.
World War I stopped the nascent research on Qubba material and a new impetus came only in the mid-1960s when two French scholars, Dominique Sourdel and Janine Sourdel Thomine, were granted permission to study the şâm evrakları, took numerous photographs and set out the traditional but erroneous account – since repeated by other scholars – of how the fragments were transferred to Istanbul by the Ottoman authorities following the fire that ravaged the Umayyad Great Mosque in 1893. The only other scholar who has been able to conduct a study on basis of the the şâm evrakları was Francois Deroche in the 1980s. One of the goals of this conference is to shed light on the intricate story of the Qubba’s ‘discovery’ and the subsequent dispersal of its material – a crucial step to rebuild the corpus.
What has become increasingly clear is furthermore that the Qubba’s pre-Ottoman/German discovery trajectory is of outstanding importance to understand the material and this will also be addressed by the conference: Most importantly, some manuscripts emerged from the cache decades before Violet’s mission to Damascus. Possibly, some such fragments had been scattered and sold abroad. For example, Kurt Treu was able to document that 23 parchment leaves containing Greek translations from the works of Isaac the Syrian, which were available to him through the photographs taken by Violet in Damascus, belonged to the same codex as Paris, BnF Supplément grec 693.
State of the art: Damascus, Istanbul and Berlin
For the moment, studies on the basis of Qubba material have been devoted to the Arabic fragments remaining in Damascus, to the Greek and Latin fragments through the photographic material in Berlin and some Arabic fragments from the şâm evrakları collection. Thanks to the contributions devoted to the Islamic material still in the Syrian capital it has been possible, for example, to identify: 1) three folios of the Qur’ān of Amajūr; 2) some exemplars of qur’anic fragments of the early ‘Abbasid times that show resemblances with other fragments in Istanbul; 3) a precious Christian-Arabic text dating back to the 8th century. The photographic material in Berlin allowed for instance to recognize some rare examples of Coptic manuscripts that have not been discovered on Egyptian soil, documenting thus the presence of Coptic communities abroad.
These Berlin photos have also been instrumental in bringing out a unique cache of Latin fragments with Middle Eastern provenance, including liturgical fragments, prayers, liturgical chants with different neumatic systems and a safe-conduct from Baldwin III of Jerusalem. Highlights include a fragment from the Merovingian-Carolingian period, an illuminated fragment dating back to the 12th century and a Latin text written in Greek script. It seems possible to hypothesize that these books were imported, or written in the Middle East by writers (not necessarily professional scribes) with an education in the Western graphic tradition (especially some of the 12th-13th century fragments). The safe-conduct from Baldwin III, which bears similarities with other documents from the Holy Land now kept in the State
Archive of Palermo, and from the abbey of Our Lady of Josaphat, must definitely be considered as produced locally.
While we thus have a small trickle of publications, compared to the overall number of fragments originally housed in the Qubba we have just started to scratch the surface of this unique collection. The main problem that has hindered the study of the Qubba and its material is however not only that access has been so difficult, but that an étude d’ensemble is lacking. Knowledge of Qubba material is fragmented in various sub-fields that rarely talk to one another (Jewish Studies, Islamic Law, Koranic Studies, Syriac Studies, Crusader Studies, etc). In fact Qubba material is often studied as decontextualized fragments with limited attention to the fact that the fragments in question have come out of an identifiable genizah-context. Worse, fields are often not aware that the Qubba material includes relevant fragments. The Coptic fragments have passed almost unnoticed by Coptologists and the Old French material were for decades not seriously studied. The same holds true for the Jewish fragments, and those in Syriac.
Goals of the conference
Over 100 years after its ‘academic discovery’, time has thus finally come to use the incredible scholarly potential of Qubba material. The field of Cairo Genizah Studies has shown what can be done with such material and what impact it can have for a wide range of fields. It is evident that only collaborative work including the varied linguistic, historical and literary competences, can provide the skills that the Qubbat al-khazna find requires to be properly understood in its integrity. The scholarly fragmentation of dealing with Qubba material has to be overcome if we want to make progress. In consequence, we have decided to organize a conference aiming at throwing light on the historical, textual, linguistic and palaeographical aspect of the discovery, and on the scholars – such as Hermann von Soden and Bruno Violet – involved.
For this purpose, we have selected a team of highly qualified international specialists, from across Europe, Syria, Israel, Canada and the United States, each of whom is engaged in studying Qubba material. The colleagues participating represent the most important disciplines concerned: from Old French Literature to Hebrew and Arabic texts, from Byzantine and Latin palaeography to the social and cultural history of the Arabic manuscript production. The three co-organisers have all been engaged in studying Qubba material: D’Ottone Rambach has been one of the few academics who got access to the Damascus material, Vollandt has mostly worked on the non-Muslim fragments, Hirschler was recently able to get access to the şâm evrakları. Their background in Arabic Studies, Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern history very much reflects the multi-disciplinary competence needed to run such an endeavor.
Berlin has been chosen as location as it is – together with Damascus and Istanbul – one of the meaningful places for discussing Qubba material. On account of the German/Ottoman opening of the Qubba, the history of its manuscripts has been repeatedly linked to this city. With the collections of photographs in the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin holds the largest cache of material currently accessible. To reflect the role of these institutions in the history of Qubba material, both institutions are closely involved in the conference.
The main aim of the conference is simple: It aims to be the initial step in creating a field of Qubba Studies comparable to that of Genizah Studies. As the first meeting of its kind it will lay the foundation to create a scholarly community around this cache of manuscripts. This is meant to bring the cache into focus within the various subfields, but also to create links between sub-fields. The long-term goal is thus to bring about a renewed wave of study on the Damascus Genizah material.
To make sure that the conference will be more than the sum of individual papers we have three sessions that profile the Qubba as a distinct historical site (sessions 1-3). The aim is to underline that this cache should ideally be seen as a whole and that the fragments must always be studied in relation to this larger picture – similar to what has been done for papyri that were originally pertaining to the archive of a same family but that are now scattered among several collections.
The second goal is to involve Syrian colleagues to make ground for a shared project and to valorise the precious material provided by the Qubba. In this way we bridge the modern language divide that has been a further hindrance for the development of a scholarly consciousness of the Qubba. By collaborating with colleagues from Syria, it is also our aim to work for wider access for the international community of scholars to the collections of the Qubba’s fragments. This is particularly relevant as Syria is currently slipping off the academic map on account of the war. It is thus the more important to finally tap into this unique resource that has lay dormant for too long.
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D’Ottone Rambach/Hirschler/Volandt/BBAW – Scholarly Goals
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