This post tells the life story of an Arabic manuscript of folk tales. The manuscript is not particularly old, nor particularly beautiful, but it has a curious tale of its own. My interest was sparked by the spine of the Victorian binding, which does not bear the title or author of the work, but instead describes the book as follows: “Arabic M.S. given to Miss Gurney by Mrs. Leider”. This provenance was obviously of importance to the owner, but who were these women?
It is frustrating when trying to identify women in historical sources that not only are their first names often hidden but that on marriage they usually took their husband’s surname. In Mrs Leider’s case, that surname is likely to have been misspelled. My favourite candidate for the role is a remarkable woman by the name of Alice Holliday, who in about 1838 married the missionary Revered Johann Rudolph Theophilus Lieder in Cairo. Jaromir Malek notes that “the name is sometimes rendered in a distorted fashion, e.g. Leider, Leeder, or Lieders” ( ‘The Monuments Recorded by Alice Lieder in the ‘Temple of Vulcan’ at Memphis in May 1853’ ). For many years Alice Lieder successfully ran the Mission school for girls. Malek paints an intriguing portrait: “Judging by the accounts of travellers who visited Cairo in the 1840s and 1850s and met her there, Mrs Lieder was a very enlightened and exceptionally determined woman who occasionally proved very much too independent for her male contemporaries” – a description reminiscent of Enriqueta Rylands, the founder of this Library.
In his article, Jaromir Malek also relates the story that Mrs Lieder “taught the wife and two daughters of Ibrahim Pasha in his harem” – which leads to a tempting (but unsubstantiated) hypothesis regarding her acquisition of the manuscript. This manuscript was written by a Christian Copt in 1129AH (1717CE), possibly for a Cairo contemporary named Yūsuf Qumṣ. Alice and Johann Lieder had a close relationship with the Coptic community in Cairo (see article by Paul Sedra) and are known to have collected Egyptian antiquities (see the British Museum blog). Indeed, the core of the manuscript collection in the John Rylands Library was formed by Lord Lindsay, Earl of Crawford. His collection of “Oriental manuscripts” began during his visit to Egypt in 1836-7, on which he met Rev. Lieder and acquired through him an illuminated manuscript of the Koran.
To the question “Who was Miss Gurney?” the simple answer is that I don’t know. There are a number of highly educated and cultured women bearing the Quaker family name of Gurney. To narrow it down we can look to the later life of the manuscript. It was sold to the John Rylands Library in 1922 by “Mrs Braithwaite” having previously belonged to “J.B. Braithwaite”. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Joseph Bevan Braithwaite (1818-1905) had a substantial library, which had grown from a collection of books given to him by Joseph John Gurney in 1834. Joseph was particularly close to his eldest sister, the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (the Library holds her heavily annotated Bible). However, she married in 1800 – probably before Alice Holliday was even born. Perhaps “Miss Gurney” was Joseph’s daughter Anna who married John Backhouse in 1843, but died in 1847 aged only twenty seven. Another possible candidate is Joseph’s cousin Anna Gurney (1795-1857), an Anglo-Saxon scholar proficient in many languages. We may never know for certain.
This manuscript (Arabic MS 658 (819)), along with the Rylands’ sixteenth century manuscript of Arabian Nights, is currently on display in Paris as part of the “Les Mille et Une Nuits” exhibition at the Institut de Monde Arabe. If you have any evidence or information about which would help identify the previous owners of this manuscript, I would very much like to hear from you.
The John Rylands Library has recently agreed to contribute high quality images and metadata of its Genizah Collection to the Friedberg Genizah Project – as reported by The Ancient World Online (AWOL) blog: The Friedberg Genizah Project Updates. The Friedberg Genizah Project seeks to digitally unite Genizah fragments from around the world, using image analysis to highlight potential “joins” between separated fragments of the same original manuscript.
We hold nearly 15,000 fragments, mostly written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, from the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, purchased from the estate of Dr Moses Gaster in 1954. About 90% of the items are on paper, the remainder on parchment. The vast majority are very small fragments. They date from the 10th to the 19th century AD and include religious and literary texts, documentary sources, letters, and material relating to grammar, philosophy, medicine, astrology and astronomy. High resolution images and searchable catalogue data are available via the University of Manchester Library’s Image Collections.
“I have been doing an internship here at the library for the last six weeks to gain experience in the heritage sector and was lucky enough to help out with setting up the Faces&Voices exhibition. It has been quite a learning curve and I had an interesting insight into how much work it takes to create and install such an exhibition.
The amount of time and effort put in by the curators, Roberta Mazza and Kate Cooper, as well as the Public Programs Manager, Jacqui Fortnum, and the rest of the library staff has been phenomenal. I only came into the proceedings towards the end of the journey but it was lovely to see all that hard work coming together. As the exhibits were brought up from the stores and the cases were cleared and cleaned excitement started to build about the arrival of the famous mummy portraits from Manchester Museum.
I found it particularly interesting to see all the work involved in preparing the items to go on display and then protecting them while they are out. The conservators carefully check everything before it goes into the cases and there were several anxious discussions about controlling the potential spread of glitter from the modern art to the papyri and the mummy portraits. Even the modern books had hours spent over them checking they would be alright to be left open on the chosen page for four months and bespoke stands were made for every piece.
When the day came to install the exhibition the air was very humid – not ideal for the delicate mummy portraits which are best kept in drier conditions. This is because they are painted on wood which will expand and contract if the humidity level of the air around them changes too much. If the wood changed shape it could be disastrous for the 2000 year old paint on its surface so the conservators are very careful to control the atmosphere around them. The cases could only be left open for a short amount of time while the curators arranged all the pieces and the labels to their satisfaction then they were quickly locked away to allow the mechanisms inside the display cases to reduce the humidity levels back to a comfortable level.
The larger modern art pieces by Fathi Hassan were also challenging because they were intended to hang in the entrance hall but because the library is a Grade 1 listed building nails cannot be hammered into the walls nor any other method used to hang the pieces that might damage the building. Eventually an ingenious combination of double-sided velcro, metal rulers and extra strong magnets was devised to hold up the delicate paper art works and they look fantastic in the atrium.”
Last Thursday the John Rylands Library hosted a dinner on behalf of Cancer Research UK and the new Manchester Cancer Research Centre building. The Duke of Gloucester, Joint President of Cancer Research UK, was guest of honour, and Julianne Simpson and I mounted a display of medical-related books and manuscripts from our collections.
The earliest item on show was one of our Greek papyri, Greek papyrus 531, which contains a series of medical recipes from the third/second centuries BCE. In fact it is one of the earliest known prescriptions on papyrus. Among the more ‘hopeful’ cures are the following:
‘In case of hysterical suffocation, take dried otters’ kidneys, as much as can be held in three fingers, and serve in sweet-smelling wine. This is also helpful in the case of pains in the testicles and is an enema for the womb.’
‘If, together with choking, coughing supervenes, take equal quantities of red arsenic and unfired sulphur, also four of five almonds; cleanse them and mix well and then give (give to the patient) in sweet-smelling wine.’
Definitely a case of the cure being worse than the complaint. C.H. Roberts, who published the papyrus in 1938, believed that the recipes are Greek in origin, not Egyptian.