Ottoman-Turkish Manuscripts at Yale.

Nothing spectacular, but a nice story from Mike Cummings at Yale News:

Turning the pages of a manuscript copy of the Maʿrifetnāme, an 18th-century encyclopedia authored by the Ottoman scholar and Sufi poet İbrāhīm Ḥaḳḳī Efendi, can lead readers to seventh heaven and the depths of hell. A copy of the beautifully illuminated manuscript — one of just a handful from the 18th century known to exist — is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, part of the Yale Library. It features a detailed illustration of the Islamic conception of Judgment Day, including the seven layers of paradise and perdition, the scales used to weigh people’s deeds, and the book in which their sins and virtues are recorded. A cauldron of tar awaits those cast into hell. A lote tree marks the upper boundary of heaven.

Brightly colored world maps, diagrams, and charts join the rendering of the afterlife within the manuscript’s pages. The Ottoman-Turkish text explores a vast range of subjects, including astronomy, biology, physics, faith, mathematics, and mysticism. The manuscript is an intellectual feast for scholars and bibliophiles. But until now, few knew how to find it.

The Maʿrifetnāme is one of 567 Ottoman-Turkish objects — spanning the mid-15th century to the early 20th century, including hundreds of manuscripts, a scroll calendar, imperial orders, and the passport of an Ottoman pasha — being cataloged so that researchers can easily find and access them in the library’s collections.

Until recently no one on the library staff had the specialized language skills — Ottoman Turkish is complex and difficult, incorporating Arabic, Persian, and modern Turkish — to catalog these materials so they could be listed in the Yale Library’s searchable databases. But last September the library enlisted Ayşe Çiçek Ünal, a graduate student in the Department of History, to create catalog records for each of the objects, which are drawn from three distinct collections. Guiding her are Özgen Felek, a lector of Ottoman in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Agnieszka Rec, an early materials cataloger at the Beinecke Library, and Roberta Dougherty, librarian for Middle East studies.

For Ünal, whose doctoral work examines the influence of the Ottoman Empire in its far-flung provinces in North Africa, the project offers a chance to examine materials relevant to her scholarly interests while also gaining experience working in a research library — a setting she most often experiences as a patron. At the same time, she is using her knowledge of Ottoman Turkish to catalog the materials so that researchers can locate and study them.

The manuscripts range across many genres and topics, including history, poetry, literature, mysticism, Islamic law, religious sermons, medical texts, dictionaries, and account books. They include the Vankulu Lügati (The Vankulu Dictionary), a two-volume Arabic-Turkish dictionary that in 1729 became the first printed book ever published in the Ottoman Empire, as well as a biography of Alexander the Great, and Leylā vü Mecnūn, a well-known romance in Islamic literature, akin to “Romeo and Juliet,” among many other notable works.

Felek, who teaches Ottoman Turkish, incorporated the manuscripts into “Reading and Research in Ottoman History and Literature,” a course she taught in the fall of 2019. Her 10 students — seven graduate students and three undergraduates — each chose a manuscript to research. They shared their findings at a symposium at Sterling Memorial Library that Felek organized with Dougherty. The occasion marked the manuscripts’ introduction to the academic world, Felek said.

Ünal and Felek frequently consult with Yasemin Sönmez, an Ankara-based Turkish calligrapher and independent scholar who provides them detailed explanations of material aspects and calligraphical styles of the manuscripts. They have also enjoyed the help of Dougherty and several graduate students.

Occasionally, the first few pages of a manuscript will be written in Arabic and then transition to Ottoman Turkish. The flyleaf — blank pages at the front of the manuscript — can contain information on the manuscript’s provenance and the people who have read it, including dates of ownership and inheritance. Occasionally they also contain personal notes, such as a grocery list. (“It is a resource for social history,” Ünal said.) And at times, manuscripts yield unexpected surprises. Ünal discovered a German coin inside the pages of one.

Aside from making the materials accessible, cataloging has a security aspect to it, Rec explained. “You can’t know what you’ve lost if you don’t know what you have,” she said. “The record might state that a miniature is located on a specific page. If the page is missing, it suggests somebody has taken it.”

To date, nearly 78 manuscripts have been catalogued.

For Ünal, the work serves as a continual reminder of the richness of Ottoman culture and history — the subject to which she has devoted her scholarly career. “This project immensely contributes to my bibliographic knowledge, enriches my understanding of manuscripts, and broadens my perspective,” she said. “It motivates me to imagine potential research questions in every single manuscript.”

I’m glad such work is going on in these times of academic retrenchment. But why is there rather than ve in Leylā vü Mecnūn?


  1.  But why is there vü rather than ve in Leylā vü Mecnūn?

    For an account of the Ottoman pronunciation of the Persian conjunction و ‘and’, see for example §336, bottom of page 218 and top of page 219 (with cross-references to the Persian facts in footnote 1 and also footnote 6, p. 23, and in §55, p. 24) in Finn Thiesen (1982) A Manual of Classical Persian Prosody.

  2. Also, note §9.4 on page 54 in Korkut Bugday (2014) An Introduction to Literary Ottoman. (I assumed a manuscript of Nizami’s Persian version was meant, but maybe it could be Fuzuli’s Azeri version.)

  3. Google says ve becomes u/ü/vu/vü “in Persian construction” (a dictionary linked from Wiktionary) or when “joins two Arabic or Persian nouns that are closely related”.

    Pronunciation /u/ does exists in Persian*, also it (w~u) is dialectal Arabic pronunciation. It would be interesting to learn the full story.

    *(Cf: “(predominant in context) (Classical Persian) IPA(key): /u/ … …(predominant after a pause) (Classical Persian) IPA(key): /wa/”)

    PS. Oops.. sorry, I only saw Xerîb’s comments after writing mine.
    PPS. But I of coruse knew that Xerîb is going to answer the question:)
    PPPS. I found the (unrelated) passage here pp 49-50 starting from “This conjunction served as a contested word in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.” to to the note 85 amusing.

  4. Addendum: probably Nizami rather than Fuzuli, since Leyla’s name is Leyli in Azeri.

  5. But I of coruse knew that Xerîb is going to answer the question:)

    Same here! Thanks to both of you; it’s a confusing situation. I’m familiar with o in Persian, but is just weird!

  6. A.I. dropping in from the Akkadian thread. This is a project for digitizing Ottoman Turkish materials, printed and handwritten.

  7. Weird. I suppose v- appears after vowels*, and ü results from vowel harmony…

    * p. 130 in Korkut Bugday’s book linked in Xerîb’s second comment (if it is macron over ū spelled ـيـ)
    بيست و دو būst ü dü 22
    سى و سه sī vü se 33

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Assuming that the cataloging-in-searchable-database entries are in some sort of romanization, is the romanization scheme used for Ottoman-era texts now so standardized (maybe a retrojection of the Ataturkist script for “purified” post-Ottoman Turkish?) that everyone interested in searching will know what spelling to use for their search terms?

  9. David Marjanović says

    Ü appears to be some sort of default. Mubarak came out as Mübarek on the signs held by protesters against him in Ankara.

    maybe a retrojection of the Ataturkist script

    I’m actually surprised they don’t use circumflexes for the graphically long vowels – I’ve seen that done before.

  10. Circumflexes in Ataturk’s script indicate palatalization of the preceding consonant, IIRC.

  11. David Marjanović says

    In modern practice, yes (specifically exemptions of L from vowel harmony), but theoretically they’re supposed to be put on long vowels (which are never native, but neither are exemptions from vowel harmony apart from ane).

  12. Is there any system in the choice macron vs. circumflex?

    All I understand is that in 19th century the latter was often used where the former is used now, and that in modern Persian transliterations it is usually circumflex and in modern Arabic transliterations it is usually macron.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Historically, an important consideration must have been the availability of the circumflex on European typewriters because French has them.

    In some specialist contexts, the actual usage of circumflexes for vowel length in a few OHG and MHG manuscripts must also have played a role.

Speak Your Mind