The Koran Collection At The Topkapi Palace Library

When the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans and the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years, was turned into a museum in 1924, the manuscripts, found in many pavilions and rooms, were gathered together to form the New Library. Today, the Islamic manuscripts preserved in this new library have been sorted out into categories of Arabic, Farsi and Turkish. A complete catalogue was compiled and published by F.E. Karatay in 1960. The first of the Arabic catalogues contains Korans and works of Koranic commentary. These Korans and Commentaries, which have been gathered from the various pavilions, buildings and rooms of the Palace and are classified by the name of the location where they were found, number more than two thousand.

The collection of Korans, the richest to be found anywhere in the world, comprises texts of the Koran inscribed during the 7th - 19th centuries in Arabia, œran, India, Maghrib (North Africa) and the lands dominated by the Seljuks and Ottomans. Almost all have been prepared by famous calligraphers, gilded by master gilders, and bound by the most capable bookbinders of the times. The 1600 or more Korans found in the first volume of the Arabic catalogue are preserved in the Palace Library as rare books. Among these are seven believed to be inscribed by khaliph Osman (RA), nine accredited to khaliph Ali (RA), two ascribed to Hasan and Hussein (RA) as well as many translations. There are twenty-one Turkish translations, thirty-nine Farsi translations, twenty-one Chagatay translations and one Uygur translation.

The first Korans were written on parchment in the 7th - 8th centuries in a monumental type of script called kufic. This script, whose name is derived from Kufa, an early Islamic center, is a style of Arabic script closest to pictorial design. Kufic script, most characterised with its horizontal and vertical lines, showed regional peculiarities in the 9th century. The kufic script of Iran differed from the kufic of the regions of Baghdad and North Africa. The script used in Baghdad and North Africa was more dynamic and of slighter dimension.

The first Korans written in kufic script, besides the one believed to have been recited by khaliph Osman (RA) at the moment of his death (H.S.32), are the Korans written in vertical form (M.3 M.74, for example). In addition to those written on parchment, there are those of the 9th -11th centuries inscribed on thick dark paper with sepia ink using delicate kufic lines (E.H.20, R.19, YY.752, for example).

Also in the Palace collection are Korans prepared in North African cities such as Ceuta and Marrakech between the 12th and 16th centuries. These are written on parchment on thick dark paper in Maghribi kufic with gilded frontispiece, illuminated surah headings, surah titles, marginal rosettes and sajdah marks (R.27, R.33, R.21, R.41, etc.)

Kufic script was used in copying the text of the Koran until the middle of the tenth century. Examples of eastern Iranian kufic continued to be seen until the twelfth century. From the eleventh century onwards, a more rounded type of script was used in the writing of the Koranic text. The main type of script characterising this new tendency was naskhi, a style completely opposite in appearance to kufic. This script began to be characterised in the first ten years of the tenth century when a calligrapher named Ibn al-Muqla used the length of the letter alif as a proportional guide At the beginning of the eleventh century another calligrapher named Ibn al-Bawwab created a freer naskhi. After Ibn al-Bawwab, Yakut al-Mustasimi, a Turk from Amasya living in the Abbasid Baghdad of the thirteenth century, specified the rules for six different scripts in the art of calligraphy. The scribes trained by Yakut spread his style in Koranic script to all Islamic countries. The scripts he used in the main text were naskhi, muhaqqaq, rayhani. In the surah titles and other additions tawqi, riga, thuluth and kufic were used.

In the second half of the thirteenth century Korans written in rayhani script begin to appear. All these resemble naskhi of Yakut al-Mustasimi (d.1298) Although both small and large styles of rayhani were used in Iranian Korans until the late fourteenth century, this style was rare in the Mameluke Korans. Besides naskhi and rayhani scripts, the more majestic thuluth and muhaqqaq scripts were the styles to gain more popularity and appear more frequently in the Korans that have come down to us from the twelfth century. Examples where muhaqqaq script is used in combination with rayhani appear in Iran at the end of that century. Although the technique was used in both Iran and Turkey, it was not preferred by the Arabic speaking countries.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the only script to be used in copying the Koranic text in the Islamic world was muhaqqaq. In the Egypt of the Mamelukes, however, this type of script made its appearance only in the second half of the same century.

Gilders were as important as calligraphers in Koranic manuscripts. Throughout the 19th - 14th centuries the gilders decorating the Korans of the Abbasid, Fatimi, Eyyubi, Muvahhid, Mameluke, Seljuk and Illhanic periods created colourful gilt arrangements using a variety of motifs. The large Korans of the Mameluke and Ilhanic periods, with their impressive gilt compositions, made the Koran the most magnificent work of art in the Islamic world.

The tradition of gilt designs in Koranic inscription appears to have been established in the eleventh century. The most common tradition of gilt design in the Korans of the 11th -14th centuries was the complete decoration of a designated square or rectangular area on the first page of the text. The gilding of the border around the text of the first two surahs (Al-Fatiha and Al-Bakara) appeared in the fourteenth century.

The Koran of the eleventh century written by Abul Kasēm Ali b.Abdullah al-Baghdadi, vizier to the Seljuk sultan Turul Bey (H.S.89), and preserved in the Palace Library today, is an important example of the period's Koranic gilding with its frontispiece, illuminated surah heading, surah titles and marks in the gilt style of the Seljuks. The works of the 13th century master of the naskhi style, Yakut al-Mustasimi, are just as valuable (a typical example is E.H.74). It has been discovered that the Korans and Koranic sections written by Yakut al-Mustasimi and the 14th century naskhi masters Abdullah Sayrafi and Argun Kamili were restored and carefully gilded in the time of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in the 16th century. The "Al-An'am" surah in thuluth and rayhani script of Argun Kamili of Baghdad (R.69), the gilt Koran in rayhani script of Muhammed b.Sayfeddin al-Nakkash are distinguishable for their rich and colourful design.

The 15th section of the Koran written on thick paper in gold muhaqqaq script (E.H. 232) in Mosul during the era of the Illhanic ruler Sultan Olcaytu is another important development in Korinic calligraphy. In the fourteenth century the Illhanic and Mameluke ateliers were the most productive in the Islamic world. The most distinctive examples of Mameluke Korans were prepared in 1256-1399. While bight colored gilt Ilhanic Korans were being produced at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the transition to colourful design in the Egypt of the Mamelukes and in Syria came later towards the middle of the same century. The Mameluke Korans preserved in the Palace Library are part of this development. In the same way, the Timuri Koran (H.S.4) written at the end of the 15th century by Muhammed b. Sultanshah al-Haravi of Heart and the Turkmen Koran (H.S.55) written in the fifteenth century at Tabriz are significant for an understanding of how Koranic design developed a rich and colourful set of motifs.

Some valuable Korans in the Palace Library were inscribed under the Safevids in Iran in the 16th century (M.10, H.S.25, K.28, E.H.153, E.H.162, Y.Y.896, M.4, for example). They are important for their design and gilding as an example of the development of the Safevid Koranic style and the elaborateness of motif. Particularly Koran numbered H.S.25, with its pages of dynamic taliq script, is a magnificent work of the famous calligrapher Shah Mahmud Nishapuri.

Undoubtedly the best examples reflecting the development of gilding and calligraphy in the Ottoman Korans are preserved in the Palace Library. The fundamentals of Ottoman Koranic script were set down in the Korans produced in naskhi by the famous calligrapher Sheikh Hamdullah at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century. Koranic gilding developed in those years as well. The Sheikh Korans (Y.Y.913, E.H.71, E.H.72, A.5, for ewample) in the Palace Library are all matchless examples of the gilding style of the period.

The Koran written in naskhi script by Abdullah b. Ilias and gilded by Bayram b. Dervish (E.H.58), the Koran written in a combination of naskhi-thuluth script by Ahmet Karahisari and gilded in the style of the gilder Karamemi (Y.Y.999) are both important works reflecting the stages of Ottoman Koranic writing in the sixteenth century. The large Koran attributed to Ahmed Karahisari (H.S.5) is a magnificent manuscript incorporating rich motifs of gilt. This work, a major masterpiece of Ottoman book design, is one of the most valuable manuscripts in the Palace Library.

Some selected Korans produced by the well-known Ottoman calligraphers of later centuries are precious additions to the Library's unique collection. The calligraphers and artists of the nine-tenth and early twentieth centuries experimented with different script styles such as thluth and taliq and preferred to produce decorative wall inscriptions. The Ottoman art of hand-copying Koranic text eventually adopted a rococo style and then exhibited neoclassic gilding patterns. The Library Collections is abundant with examples of these as well.

This magnificent assembly of work was accumulated through the individual collections of the Ottoman Sultans for hundreds of years. The multitude of samples of kufic and maghribi kufic script, the works of the well-known Islamic calligraphers Yakut, Abdullah Sayrafi and Argun Kamili, the exquisite Safevid Korans together form a precious legacy.

Source: Turkiyemiz, Culture and Art Magazine June 1992

By : Dr. Banu Mahir