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Oriental manuscripts

Imperial Public Library started acquiring manuscripts in oriental languages as soon as it was established in 1795. By the time it was officially inaugurated in 1812 it had accumulated 183 such manuscripts, 103 of them being from P.P. Dubrovsky's collection.

The largest acquisitions made during the early history of the Library became possible due to the successful action of the Russian Army in its campaigns against Persia and Turkey. The Ardebil, Akhaltsikh, Erzerum and Adrianopolis Collections number 420 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. Further growth of this collection became possible due to collecting activities of diplomats (I.O. Simonitch, D.I. Dolgoruky, A. Zhaba) and Russian and foreign scholars (V.D. Smirnov, I.P. Minaev, N.V. Khanykov, K. Tischendorff, J.-J. Marcele), of missionaries (Archimandrite Peter (Kamensky), Archbishop Porfiry (Uspensky), Archimandrite Antonyn (Kapustin), Z.F. Leontievsky). The largest private collection is that of the Karaim traveler, merchant and archeologist Avraam Firkovich which numbers some 18 000 items as well as the personal papers of its owner.
Thanks to Firkovich and Archimandrite Antonin (1180 items) the collection of Jewish (or, be precise, Judaic) manuscripts in the National Library of Russia is one of the largest in the world.

Miniatures of St Matthew the Evangelist and The Transfiguration from a Georgian 16th-century manuscript
Miniatures of St Matthew the Evangelist and
The Transfiguration from a Georgian 16th-century manuscript

The most celebrated Judaic manuscripts from the National Library of Russia are: "Codex Petropolitanus", of the year 1010 - the oldest unabridged dated manuscript variant of the Bible (also called Codex Leningradensis, Leningrad Bible or Cairo Bible) with its 16 decorative illuminated sheets; "The Last Prophets" of 916 ("Codex Babilonicus Petropolitanus") - the first among the known manuscripts with the Babylonian system of vowels in different syllables; the incomplete Bible of 929 decorated with the pictures of two menorah (a candelabrum with seven branches).

Christian East is represented by 40 Syrian manuscripts, 13 among which date back to the first millenium (the earliest one being the "Ecclesiastic History" by Eusebius of 462); by 64 Coptic manuscripts of the 10th - 18th centuries; by 34 Ethiopian manuscripts of the 16th - 19th centuries; by 237 Georgian hand-written books of the 8th - 19th centuries (of which the most celebrated is the "Tbetic Gospel" of 995); and by 106 Armenian manuscripts. Many of the Georgian and Armenian manuscripts are decorated with miniatures and illuminations. Of great interest are the 100 Arabian Christian manuscripts, the earliest of which is the Gospel of the year 892 with miniatures.

Hand-written Islamic books are also well represented. Over 2000 Arabian codices and fragments include a whole collection of Korans in Kufic alphabet of the 8th - 11th centuries, gorgeous books decorated in "Memeluke Style" of the 14th - 15th centuries, a "Geography" by al-Idrisi with 37 maps, an astronomical work by as-Soufi with pictures of the constellations. Books in Arabic were written and copied not only in Arabic countries but also in Iran, Central Asia, Turkey, Dagestan and other Islamic areas.

Among more than 1000 Persian manuscripts, 140 are decorated with miniatures starting with "Shah-Name" of 1333. Especially well represented is the Tabriz school (see, for example, the poem "Gui va chaugan" by Arifi copied by shah Takhnasp in 1525). Some of the miniatures are attributed to Bekhzad and Mukhammedi. There are also works signed by Rizai Abbasi. Among the calligraphists one should note Sultan-Ali Makhshadi, Shah Makhmud Nishapuri, Mir Imad. The Persian manuscripts produce great impression not only by their miniatures and calligraphy but also by their overall design: by their ornamental illuminations and margins as well as by their stamped and patent leather bindings.

Rizai Abbasi. The Shepherd. Persian miniature. 1634
Rizai Abbasi. The Shepherd.
Persian miniature. 1634
A gilded Persian leather binding. 16th century
A gilded Persian leather binding.
16th century

Some of the Turkic manuscripts were also designed in Persian tradition. First of all this applies to the works of the Uzbek poet Alisher Navoi (for example, to his "Early Divan" copied in 1465 when the poet was 25 years of age). Over 400 Turkish manuscripts were copied in Turkey, Central Asia, the Crimea and the area of the River Volga.

There are also 56 Kurdish manuscripts of the 19th century. Among the items preserved in the Library there are some 800 documents written in Islamic countries. These are charters written by Persian shahs and Turkish sultans, deeds of purchase, letters, and registers which recorded legal acts.

Among the manuscripts and xylographs from Far East, South-East Asia and other Buddhist areas one should note 300 Chinese manuscripts, 70 Manchurian manuscripts, 60 Japanese manuscripts, 400 manuscripts written in the 15th - 19th century in various Indian languages, 160 Tibetan manuscripts, 39 Mongolian manuscripts and 14 Kalmuck manuscripts.

The Oriental collections include archives containing documents and translations into oriental languages made in the 20th century (by Peisakh, Bernstein, Margolin). The collection of Russian archives contains the archives of such orientalists as Samoilovich, Troitskaya, Martinovich, and Shprintsyn.

The Oriental collections are continuously replenished. Over 100 manuscripts including the Arabic manuscript of the 14th century - the "takhmis" "Kasydat al-Burda" which is an excellent sample of a book designed in the "Mameluke Style" - have been acquired in the past five years.

At the moment the National Library of Russia preserves some 27 000 oriental manuscripts: codices, fragments, scrolls, documents (charters, letters, etc.), xylographs, and drawings fully illustrating the history of the evolution of writing and of the art of making books in the East.
The chronological span of the collections is from the 10th century before Christ (papyri from Ancient Egypt) to the present day: its geographic span is from Japan and Indonesia to Spain, from St. Petersburg to Ethiopia.

These manuscripts are distributed among 47 collections set up at different times and along different organizational lines. These collections have inventories in Russian. Some of their catalogues were published but this activity was not carried out systematically. Some facsimile editions have been published (for example, "The Leningrad Bible"). The reproductions of the oriental manuscripts were included into different editions of books on art. The National Library of Russia has also published 5 issues of "Collected Oriental Materials" in order to promote awareness of its collections of Oriental manuscripts. The Library personnel and its users are continuously engaged in research of its collections and individual manuscripts. The results of this research are then included into the auxiliary collection of the Manuscript Division.

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