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Near Eastern Manuscripts: Caro Minasian Collection Digitization Project

Interest in the Middle East and the Islamic world is at an all time high, generating a corresponding increase in demand for specialized teaching, learning and transmitting critical knowledge and perspectives on this part of the world. Understanding this region involves learning about the social, political, religious and cultural issues � past and present � that shape the Islamic world of today. Studying Middle Eastern cultures and peoples across all time periods provides a crucial framework for understanding the complex relationship between Islam and the West today.

The University of California, Los Angeles Library holds one of the two largest collections of Near Eastern manuscripts in the United States.1 The UCLA collections include approximately 7,000 manuscripts written in Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Armenian, primarily in the fields of medicine, literature, philology, theology, law, and history, and ranging from the 11th through the 19th centuries. These collections rank among the most important in North America, both in extent and scholarly interest. Inquiries about the collections come from around the globe and in a variety of fields, even though the collections are little known and lack adequate bibliographic access.

These manuscripts have never been described at the item level, and so cannot be discovered on the Web through finding aids, through the UCLA Library catalog, or through union catalogs such as the University of California's Melvyl or OCLC's WorldCat.

In an effort to make the Near Eastern manuscripts collections better known to a variety of audiences, the UCLA Library has initiated a long-term, large-scale plan to improve access to these collections through cataloging, digitization, and the development of tools that will support research and instruction in the online environment. The principal objectives of the plan are:

  1. To create metadata records for all significant works in our collections. These metadata records will form the basis for traditional catalog records and archival finding aids, but more importantly, they will facilitate sharing of data and digital objects (e.g. Open Archives Initiative metadata harvesting), and will allow for annotation, transcription, and other scholarly activities.
  2. To digitize significant Near Eastern manuscript collections at UCLA. Although our current plans include digitization of only one of the most significant of our collections�the Caro Minasian collection�it will be a model for future digitization projects.
  3. To build tools that will allow scholars to manipulate, annotate, transcribe, and share manuscripts and information about these manuscripts in an online environment�a virtual research environment�and to capture the results of these scholarly activities as new data records, with appropriate metadata for the maintenance, exchange, and preservation of this scholarship.
  4. To contextualize these digital collections through cooperative international follow-on projects. The first such effort will be to bring together scholars, archivists and librarians for a meeting to plan an Open Archives Initiative service to provide access to Near Eastern manuscript collections worldwide.

In order to create a large and research-worthy body of digital content in support of this plan the Library has chosen to focus initial metadata, digitization and "virtual research environment" development around a single collection, the Caro Minasian Collection of Near Eastern Manuscripts. This collection is notable for both the breadth of its contents, the significance of many individual works, and the cultural mix of both its contents and its history, including Armenian, Persian, and Arabic.

The significance of the project lies in three primary areas:

  1. The creation of a comprehensive digital collection of Near Eastern manuscripts. Although the Minasian collection contains many known works, many hitherto unknown works will also come accessible. The objective is to provide online access to the collection similar in scope and accessibility to browsing the physical archive. To this end a large number of complete manuscripts will be digitized in order to provide a meaningful experience to scholars for whom the only possible access will be via the web. The will be the first such collection to be made available online to a worldwide audience.
  2. The creation of tools to support a "virtual research environment" for Near Eastern manuscripts, building on tools already developed within the UCLA Digital Library Program.
  3. The creation of an Open Archives Initiative-based service for access to Near Eastern collections worldwide.

Each of these areas of activity is discussed separately below.

A comprehensive collection of Near Eastern manuscripts: The Minasian Collection

Islamic manuscripts of works from the classical period of Islam (7th � 13th centuries) are nearly exhaustively represented in the catalogues of Islamic manuscript collections. It is only now that intellectual achievements from the later post-classical period (13th century and on) are beginning to be explored. A great impediment to the progress in this area is a vast number of manuscripts from this period remain uncataloged. The Caro Minasian Collection of Near Eastern Manuscripts at UCLA spans virtually this entire post-classical period and represents a great diversity of intellectual concerns, as will be described below.

Caro Minasian, an Armenian physician from Isfahan, Iran, began collecting in 1935 and spent his life amassing manuscripts and antiquities of varied provenance and background. In many ways, he is symbolic of the Armenian community of Isfahan, largely associated with the distinct suburb of New Julfa, where they were settled by Shah Abbas I in 1604. The community has developed a unique socio-cultural ambience based on historical Armenian traditions accented with elements from its Persian setting and from its important interactions with the significant European presence in the city during Safavid times. By 1968, when his private library was acquired by UCLA, it included several hundred Armenian medieval manuscripts, including the Gladzor Gospels (the prime example of a medieval Armenian biblical codex), a substantial collection of Armenian printed incunabula and rare editions, a small group of Sumerian artifacts and other archeological treasures, and approximately 1,500 single works and majmuas (manuscript collections). The Armenian manuscripts, which comprise 91 items, is the largest collection of its kind in the Americas.

In addition, the Minasian collection holds thousands of archival documents in Armenian and Persian. These comprise letters, agreements, bills of sale, etc. documenting the city's rich commercial life in the 17th-18th century (especially the silk trade), which are of enormous value to economic and social historians. However, at the moment not even a handlist exists of their precise contents.

Minasian's collection, acquired by UCLA in 1968, included a large collection of manuscript materials in Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu. The focus of this project is the collection of Arabic and Persian manuscripts. A separate project to promote access to the Turkish collection is underway, and we anticipate similar projects focusing on the Armenian and other materials in the future.

Although some of these manuscripts were copied in Isfahan, the majority were likely copied in other cities of Iran and in neighboring countries, and were, as time passed, brought to Isfahan, as the most important center of Islamic learning in Iran, if not in the Near East in general. All of the manuscripts are written in black ink, some with headings in red ink, and a considerable number with frontispiece illuminations, and about 12 with illustrations (some of "museum quality"), on hand-made papers of various types, thickness and sizes. Many of the manuscripts are in folio size, with carefully hand-stitched regular 8/16-folio quires, and many are in the one-half folio size, and some in quarter folio size. The majority of the manuscripts are well preserved; a few show water damage, termite holes, and other types of damage.

The Minasian Collection of Arabic and Persian Manuscripts

The largest portion of the collection is the 1506 manuscripts in Arabic and Persian. They comprise a rich repository of Islamic learning containing many unique and rare documents relating to law, religious practice, government, language and grammar, history, science, astronomy, philosophy and literature. The majority of the works date from the 14th century through the 19th century. The subject range is wide, including anthologies (divans) of poetry, narrative poetry (mesnevis), fables and stories, commentaries on classical authors, books on grammar, letters, guides for religious novices, biographies, coffee house narratives, dictionaries and vocabularies, works of Shiite literature in the traditional Islamic disciplines such as tafsir and hadith, texts on religious ethics and jurisprudence, history, geography, cosmography, mathematics, astronomy, and genealogy.

The earliest of these manuscripts date from the Muzaffarid period (the time of Tamerlane and the Mongol occupation), and the latest from the years of Ottoman domination of the region, when the ruling dynasty was looking outward to neighboring powers such as Russia in an effort to modernize Persian society. The oldest works are written exclusively in Arabic, the scholarly lingua franca of the time, and constitute important sources of information about Islamic transformations of ancient Greek learning, especially in natural sciences and philosophy. Among these are the medical and scientific manuscripts cataloged by Iskandar and Richter-Bernburg, which show the assimilation of ancient Greek and Arabic scientific learning into post-classical medical practice.

Arabic and Persian contributions to medical science have been well-known in the West since medieval times, and can be corroborated by the Minasian medical manuscripts, which include a previously unknown portion of Galen's treatise. Less well-known are the Arabic-speaking philosophers and scientists whose work is preserved in this collection, which reveals a curriculum and scholarly agenda of great breadth and sophistication evolving within the schools of Isfahan, renowned as a center of learning from the 14th century onward. The majority of single works are commentaries on classical Greek sources: they include treatises on theology, jurisprudence, tafsir, hadith literature, devotional literature, philosophy, lexicography, philology, poetry, and the natural sciences. They include works by such eminent scholars as Nizam al-Din Hasan Nishaburi, al-Kullayni, Ibn Babawayh, al-Suyuti, Firuzabadi, Sadi, Jami, Ibn Sina, Tusi, Dawwani, Shaykh al-Bahai, and Mulla Sadra.

The 12th century is regarded as a time when systems for the rational acquisition of knowledge based on Aristotle's work began to emerge in Europe, but the contribution of Arab teachers to this movement, and the passage of ideas from East to West, is not so widely known or studied. The Minasian Collection preserves a large number of works on logic from the Safavid period, when they formed a part of the colloquial educational system, designed to teach the art of debate and the role of the inference. Many reflect the advancement and refinement of Aristotle's syllogistic system, in some cases introducing new topics to this discipline. Some works are commentaries on classic texts of Aristotle and Porphyry, translated into Arabic in the early 10th century; others are refinements of works produced in 13th century by the famous Arab logicians: Tusi, Nasir al-Din Muhammad ibn Muhammad, Abhari, Athir al-Din, and al-Qazwini. Well-known texts include: Sharh Isaghuji (0184_002), Hashiyat al-tahdhib (0109), Kubr� (0062_001), al-Tajrid (0115), and Risalah fi adab al-munazirah (0035_025). Some of these works, such as Sharh Isaghuji, were translated into Latin for use in Western medieval schools, but none has appeared in a modern edition.

From the perspective of a historian of Islamic science, one of the notable treasures of the collection is the autograph work of Nizam al Din Hasan Nishaburi (d.1328). This manuscript, completed in 1326 C.E., is the work of a prominent Persian astronomer-mathematician of the period shortly after the sack of Baghdad. Practical in design and orthography, replete with geometric illustration inserted by an assistant or student, it outlines the mathematical curriculum of its time; dependent on the Euclidean principles of the ancients as they were used in Ptolemaic astronomy, and then passed into Arabic to be revised and extended by Nasir al-Din Tusi. The astronomical tradition that laid the foundation for the eventual overthrow of Ptolemaic astronomy, as illustrated in this intricate manuscript, did not reach the West until the mid-16th century. Some of the theorems used by Nishaburi, developed originally by his teachers in order to revise the Greek astronomical tradition, were used for similar purposes by Copernicus some two hundred years later.

The collection is also valuable as a view of the dialectic of Shiite theology and the curriculum employed by Shiite seminaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. It includes several unedited and unpublished works of major significance to the study of the history of Islamic law and governance, as well as unique copies of canonical sources that call for further study, comparison, and editing. Finally, an estimate of the collection's value must include texts that shed light on Iranian politics, reading habits, and the process of social change, many of which were not mentioned by Danishpazhuh, a noted scholar of Islamic law. The project team has also discovered a copy of the anthology Diwan Majnun Layl� al-Amiri containing hitherto unknown poems, a history of Afghanistan and several other works of historiography, several fictional coffee-house narratives of the 19th century that illustrate political issues of that time, treatises on practical arts valued in Persian society, and numerous works of folk and classical Persian literature.

At completion of our project, the contents of the Minasian Collection will be discoverable by the scholarly community through rich metadata records in multiple systems, including the UCLA Digital Library, the Online Archive of California, the UCLA and UC-wide catalogs, and OAI harvesting services. Approximately half the collection will also will also be fully accessible through digital surrogates which can be annotated, collected, exported, and shared among communities of scholars, using both Roman and Arabic scripts.

This work will also lay the foundation for further technical development, with the aim of embedding our collections into the wider universe of Near Eastern scholarship, through two major systems: a union list of Near Eastern manuscripts collections based on OAI protocols, merging metadata from significant collections in the US and throughout the world; and a technical environment that will support online collaboration and new methods of digital publication.

A Virtual Research Environment for Near Eastern Manuscripts

The UCLA Digital Library currently supports a Virtual Collections collaborative tool in all its collections. Users can annotate and save digital objects for later use, and for sharing with others. There are a variety of ways in which users can either privately store or publicly share their virtual collections: they can choose whether or not to password protect their collections, and they can choose to make their collections editable by others. Users can therefore choose to create hidden personal collections, accessible only to themselves; they can create read-only collections for sharing with those with the password (e.g. an instructor sharing information with a class); they can create an editable and annotatable collection for use by a select group (e.g. a group of scholars working on a cooperative project); and the collection could be completely open, accessible and editable by anyone with an interest.

Our proposal for the grant period is to further develop this tool in a number of ways:

With these tools in place users of the collection would be able to effectively manipulate, annotate, and share digital objects from the collection or manuscript level down to individual portions of a page image that the user might define.

This online research environment will serve as the basis for further development as a tool for online publishing. Two types of scholarly output in particular could be supported: scholarly editions of texts represented in the digital manuscript collections; and scholarly articles that use digital manuscripts as evidence.

Integrated access to Near Eastern collections worldwide

The UCLA Digital Library Program already has significant experience using the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) to provide integrated access to digital collections from different institutions. We were the lead developers and host of the Sheet Music Consortium, an OAI Service Provider that harvests metadata records from and provides access to digitized sheet music at the Library Congress, National Library of Australia, Duke University, Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Maine Music Box, as well as UCLA. The Consortium web site provides access to over 120,000 pieces of sheet music, including keyword searching, Boolean searching of names, titles, subjects and publishers, and browsing by title. In addition, users can create their own "virtual collections" (i.e. save references to items from different collections), and choose to search either all collections or individual collections.

A key component of our current project is the establishment of an OAI-based service provider that will provide access to Near Eastern manuscripts collections across the world, and as a step towards that goal we are proposing to host a meeting of possible partners during the second year (2008-2009). The purpose of the meeting would be to gather interested parties together to establish a series of services that could be provided via an OAI-based Near Eastern manuscripts harvester and service provider. The Sheet Music Consortium mounted a similar meeting during its early stages, during which we planned a variety of key components of the service, including metadata formats, the search and retrieval options we would provide, and prepared a proposal for a usability study.

The proposed Near Eastern Digital Manuscripts Consortium meeting would address a similar range of issues:

Potential attendees include representatives from the major US collections, including UCLA, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Michigan; and from principal collections in the Near East, especially the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Invitations would also be extended to important European collections, including the British Library.

(1) The largest North American collection is at Princeton University ( Other important collections are housed at the University of Michigan (, Yale University, and Harvard University.