To mark the start this week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israel's National Library has curated a special digital display of 30 rare Koran manuscripts that date from the 9th through the 19th centuries and originate from diverse locales throughout the Muslim world.
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One page among those exhibited online, dating from the early 16th century, is particularly noteworthy. “It’s amazing – truly one of the most beautiful Korans in our possession," says Dr. Raquel Ukeles, curator of the Islamic and Middle East collection at the library. The first page of most Korans is illustrated and decorative, while other pages are just printed in black and white, says Ukeles. “In this Koran, however, each page is a work of art, a royal manuscript”, she says.
The history of this manuscript is no less interesting than its cover: It is handwritten in Persian and contains a small seal indicating that it came from the private library of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, father of Suleiman "The Magnificent" who rebuilt Jerusalem's city walls in the 16th century. In addition, the Shi’ite prayer within is partly masked by a gold overlay.
Research into the Koran’s provenance has revealed that this "Shirazi" Koran was looted by Selim I during the conquest of the city of Tabriz, after the battle of Chaldiran in 1514, in which the Ottomans defeated the Safavid Persian Empire. From there, it was taken to Istanbul, where it was stamped with the seal.
“It is thought that the Ottomans, who were Sunni Muslims, erased the reference to the prophet Ali with a strip of gold," says Ukeles, referring to Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed’s cousin, viewed by Shi’ites as his sole successor and as their first Imam.
And how did this Koran end up at the National Library in Jerusalem? Researcher and collector Avraham Shalom Yehuda bought it in the 1920s thanks to his ties to collectors in Egypt and in Istanbul.
“In those years, with the disintegration of the Sultan’s family, they were in need of quick cash," explains Ukeles. "They sold off treasures, enabling royal artifacts to reach the markets."
The National Library’s collection contains 100 Korans. The oldest dates from the 9th century and was written 200 years after Mohammed’s death. These books are part of the library’s collection of Arab and Persian manuscripts, which includes 2,400 items.
The Library will highlight a different Koran each day throughout the month and each Koran will be displayed with a link to the full digitized text.