On Tuesday 31 March we have our Works on Paper from the Islamic and Near Eastern Worlds auction. Featuring an exquisite range of printed books, manuscripts and miniatures, here we pick out a few of the highlights.
To start the auction we have Lot 1, the first printed edition of one of the most important treatise in the Arabic language, and also one of the earliest books ever printed in the Arabic language, Euclid, Kitab Tahrir Usul li'Uqlidis (Elementorum Geometricorum), recension by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274) was a Persian astronomer and polymath, known for identifying geometry as an independent mathematical discipline and also for his translation of the definitive Arabic edition of Euclid's Elements, which appears here as the first printed edition of that text. Tusi was a prolific author and compiled a number of authoritative texts over a range of disciplines during his lifetime, however his legacy is firmly held in this recension of Euclid's Elements, which became such an influential treatise by the sixteenth century that the Medici press decided to print this Arabic version of the text instead of trying to revive the Latin original.
Also featured in the auction is Lot 8, a 12th century Egyptian wood-block printed in Arabic on paper, Qur'anic 'Tarsh' amulet, containing a blessing for the blind to regain sight.
Tarsh block-printing is one of the earliest forms of printing in the world, second only to the Chinese, and in practice half a millennia before the Gütenberg Bible was printed in Europe. It is commonly believed that they were used as amuletic talismans with prayers containing protective properties, rather than qur'anic texts for recitation. They date back to the tenth century and were often rolled or folded and sewn into clothes or kept in small tins or leather pouches. There are few examples past the thirteenth century and it is believed that the practice stopped with the growing Sufi belief that baraka (luck and fortune) were best transmitted through the written and not printed word.
The last tarsh amulet to appear at public auction was in Sotheby's, 25 April 2002 (lot 8), which realised £29,875.
Another wonderful example from the printed book section of the sale is Lot 30, Mirza Hasan Fasa'i, Farsnama-i Nasiri, a historical and geographical treatise on the province of Fars.
The Farsnama'i Nasiri is thought to be one of the most comprehensive studies of the culture, geography and history of the south of Persia, compiled by Mirza Hasan Fasa'i by order of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar via the governor of the Fars region at the time Farhad Mirza Mo'tamed al-Dawla.
This appears to be the first edition of this important treatise, with two volumes separately paginated and bound as one volume. The original text was completed in 1304 AH (1887 AD) with this printed edition published only 10 years later. Two subsequent editions came after this edition with continuous pagination and no date of publishing.
Moving on to the manuscripts we have on offer, we have Lot 50, a leaf from a large Kufic Qur'an, an illuminated manuscript on parchment in Arabic.
The origins of this particular dispersed Qur'an have never been definitively identified as Near Eastern or North African. Its script follows many characteristics of North African Kufic scripts from the period, however the elongating of letters to this unusual form is a characteristic much attributed to leaves copied in contemporary Damascus.
The highlight of this section is Lot 57, Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, Al-Hadra al-Unsiyya fi al-Rihla al-Qudsiyya, also known as "al-Rihla al-Wustd", a monumentally important authorial manuscript copy of an eye witness account of the author's journey across Palestine, Jerusalem and Hebron, compiled during his travels in the 1690s. This manuscript is most probably one of only three copies to come to the open market in living memory.
Abd al-Ghani bin Ismail bin Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi was a poet, mystic and an esteemed scholar of theology and literature. He was born in Damascus in 1050 AH (1641 AD) and was a great traveller in his lifetime, notably visiting Baghdad, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Hijaz, before retiring back to Damascus. By the age of twenty, al-Nabulsi was formally teaching legal Fatwa in Damascus, and later spent seven years in isolation to devote himself to the mystic orders of Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi.
His father Isma'il bin Abd al-Ghani bin Ismail ibn Ahmad al-Nabulsi was of Palestinian descent, the name 'Nabulsi' meaning 'from Nablus' (a village just North of Jerusalem), and was a scholar and jurist in the Hanafi School. Despite his Palestinian roots, al-Nabulsi (junior) very much associated himself with Damascus and often refers to himself as 'al-Nabulsi al-Damashqi' (al-Nabulsi of Damascus) in the present manuscript.
Al-Nabulsi was a prolific writer and compiled many authoritative texts including both theological, poetic and travel treatises. This manuscript includes the original commentaries by the author on a journey to Palestine, Jerusalem and Hebron from which al-Nabulsi's text Al-Hadra al-Unsiyya fi al-Rihla al-Qudsiyya was compiled. As well as descriptions of historical sites, which are documented over a period of about 45 numbered days throughout the text, this manuscript also includes descriptions of many encounters with important and influential figures along his journey, some of which come in the form of an Ijazah between al-Nabulsi and a respective recipient.
Finally, another highlight from the auction is Lot 60, Abu al-Fazl Hubaysh bin Ibrahim al-Tiflisi, Nazm al-Suluk wa Taqwim al-Adviyeh, a Dictionary of Medicine and guide to Herbal remedies, a decorated manuscript on paper in Arabic.
Abu al-Fazl Hubaysh bin Ibrahim al-Tiflisi was a physician and astronomer, given the title 'al-Mutabbib' (the doctor) for authorship of numerous medical texts; including the present volume as well as the Kafiyat al-Tibb (Encyclopedia of Medicine). Though little is known about al-Tiflisi's working life, he is thought to have lived around 600 AH (1203 AD).
The present codex forms a substantial work on herbal medicine and acts as a reference work for medication and the application of practical remedies.
The colophon is signed by Ismail bin Abd'ulhaq al-Hamsa Damashqi al-Mutabbib, whose title most probably records the use of the volume by an early medical practitioner. It clearly stayed in such use for some centuries, and an early eighteenth-century ownership inscription to the title indicates that it was still used then by another Mutabbib, Afif al-Din bin Sadaqa bin Afif, who worked in the al-Salahi Hospital in Jerusalem. The binding currently housing the manuscript was probably added by Afif and used in the Salahi Hospital, one of the foremost centres for Islamic medical studies in the Middle East.
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