The printed Report of the Imperial Public Library for the year 1864 (St.Petersburg, 1865. Pp. 22-24) informs its readers that the Library has acquired "the collection of ancient Kufic Qur'ans on parchment bought from Mme Desnoyer, heiress of Arabist Marcel who was among the members of the learned French expedition to Egypt equipped by Bonapart".
Jean-Joseph Marcel (1776-1854), having been appointed the head of the printing shop dispached to Egypt together with Napoleon's military troops, stayed in Alexandria and Cairo from 1798 till 1801. Beside executing his direct duty of publishing newspapers for the French Army and leaflets for the Egyptians, he was also mastering his knowledge of Arabic and collecting antiquities. After his return to Paris, Marcel became the head of the Republican printing house. Twelve years later, after Napoleon's downfall, he was discharged from public service and started to publish his own works and research.
After Marcel's death, his heirs sold his private library. Apart from books it held, the Marcel's library contained 3000 Oriental manuscripts. About a hundred of these manuscripts can be traced now to libraries in Paris, Munich, and Geneva. However the collection of fragments of the 8th-11th century Qur'an manuscripts was preserved as a single complex and is now stored in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg.
The Holy Book of the Moslems was written in Arabic and contains 114 surahs (chapters), which are in turn subdivided into ayats (verses). Moslems believe that The Qur'an was sent down in revelations to the prophet Muhammad (571-632 A.D.) in the 7th century A.D. (1st century of Hijrah according to the Moslem era). The final codification of the text refers to the reign of Uthman, "The Third "Righteous' Caliph" (ruling period 644-656 A.D.). From the early centuries of Hijrah mostly only fragments (separate leaves or quires) of Qur'an handwritten copies have preserved. But even theses are priceless. Many of the large and famous museums and libraries boast of possessing but a few leaves. Comparatively large collections are to be found only in several depositories in European and Middle Eastern cities, for example in Istanbul (Turkey), Sanaa (Yemen), Tunis (Tunisia), Paris (France), Gotha (Germany). St. Petersburg is counted among this number.the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Old Cairo (Fustat) where they had been "kept" buried in the ground. It was a custom to bury books that went out of use due to deterioration. It is then quite natural that the leaves found in such burials are not usually in very good physical condition and have often been stained, torn, eaten by rodents, scorched by fire, or bear damp patches.
In early manuscripts of Qur'an calligraphers usually did not sign the year of copying. This makes dating problematic. One of the fragments from the Marcel collection contains an inscription of waqf (a religious endowment), which states that the manuscript was donated to the charitable endowment (probably to the 'Amr ibn al-'As Mosque) by Abu Mansur [Musa] al-Fath b. Bugha al-Kabir (¹ 6). This commander died in 877 A.D., therefore the manuscript fragment can be dated to the third quater of the 9th century (¹ 5).
All the manuscripts in the collection are written on parchment except one, which is written on paper (Marcel 111). Parchment, being a specifically curried leather, can be very different in appearance: thick or very thin, sometimes even semi-transparent, brittle or flexible, but almost always hard. Its colour may range between almost perfectly white to almost yellow.
The colour and type of the ink used may be from almost black (probably carbon) (¹ 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11) to brown (ferro-gallic ink) (¹ 2, ¹ 12). On the hair side of a parchment sheet, the ink is usually better preserved than on the flesh side, where it often peals off (¹ 4, 12, 13). For the Surah headings, sometimes red ink (¹ 1) and gold (¹ 10, 12, 13) are used.
The Qur'ans are written in archaic scripts - Hijazi (¹ 2), Umayyad (¹ 1), Kufic script of different types (¹ 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14), and so-called "New style" (¹ 15). The name of the Kufic script (derived from the city of Kufa founded by the Arabs in Mesopotamia) is often extended to become a common term for all the early Qur'anic manuscripts, which are therefore referred to as Kufic Qur'ans. The Kufic script can be very small and close (¹ 3) as well as large and streched (¹ 5, 7, 8, 10, 11); some letters reach 6 cm in horizontal length.
The number of lines on pages differs from 25-27 (¹ 1) to 5. The oldest manuscripts are more often in vertical format and have very narrow margins (¹ 1, 2). Somewhere starting with the 9th century, the horizontal format prevails, although later it again gives its place to the vertical one (¹ 15). In the most extravagant manuscripts, the text occupies an area only half as big as the area of the margins (¹ 7, 8, 11, 12). One can imagine that such unpractical use of the parchment would not allow fitting the whole text of the Qur'an into a single volume. Usually, the Qur'an was divided into seven parts (called sub') or thirty parts (called juz'), which were bound separately.
Very often, Qur'anic manuscripts were decorated with the use of gold and different colours: red, blue, green. The most eye-catching ornaments are those of the Surah headings (¹ 1), with an adjoining medallion in the outer margin drawn in the shape of a tree (¹ 4) or palmette (¹ 10, 11, 12, 13). In some items, frontispieces, i.e. opening pages decorated with geometric designs, (¹ 9) are preserved. Occasionally, other leaves of the manuscripts were decorated too (¹ 5, 7).
Verse markers drawn between individual ayats and/or groups of verses also serve as decorations, varying from small modest rosettes (¹ 16), to peer-shaped(¹ 17, 21) or large round medallions. The latter ones often have the word "five", signifying the end of a group of five verses ¹ 18, 19, 20). Others contain a multiple of ten, signifying the end of a group of ten verses (¹ 22, 23, 24, 25, 26). Sometimes the words are replaced by a letter of the Arabic alphabet, which has relevant numerical value (¹ 27).
Due to the importance of the J.J. Marcel's collection, the Max van Berchem Foundation (Switzerland) has given its support to the complex project involving conservation and preservation activities (microfilming, preservation of the most fragile leaves, etc.) as well as preparation of the electronic catalogue of the collection. V.V. Polosin (the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and Francois Déroche (the Sorbonne, Paris) worked on this project together with the employees of the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg. At present the publication of the printed version of the illustrated catalogue of the Marcel collection of early Qur'ans is being prepared.