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Structure of the IOM — The Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Documents Print E-mail
28/10/2005

— The Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Documents

The collection of ancient and medieval Oriental manuscripts and books began in Russia as early as the reign of Peter the Great. In 1818, the Asiatic Museum of the Academy of Sciences, the first academic institution of its kind in Russia, was founded as a natural extension of these collections. Scholars, as well as travelers, diplomats, missionaries and merchants, have consistently made contributions to the collection since the founding of the Asiatic Museum.

On November 11, 1818 the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, S.S. Uvarov, sent a letter to the Academy’s Executive Committee declaring the founding of the Oriental Department with Academician Ch.M. Frahn as its chair. The letter was inspired by the acquisition of a number of Arabic manuscripts from the French diplomat, J.L. Rousseau. This group of texts is among the most treasured of the entire manuscript collection of the St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies. On November 28, 1818 Ch. M. Frahn established the Oriental Department in a room of the Kunstkamera, the first museum in Russia, founded by Peter the Great to hold his collection of rare and curious oddities. In December of the same year, the Oriental Department was re-named the Asiatic Museum. Although the source of this name is unknown, it may have been the idea of Ch. M. Frahn. In any case, it was this name that went down in the history of the Russian Academy. The Asiatic Museum was opened to scholars in July 1819. Five years later, the collection was moved to the then newly-constructed Library of the Academy of Sciences.

A record of the collection’s growth was kept in the form of annual reports sent by the directors to the Academy of Sciences. According to the 1926 report, the collection consisted of:

131,250 volumes of catalogued books

35,000 volumes of non-catalogued books and replicas

20,000 issues of 1,539 periodicals

15,000 manuscripts.

Many manuscripts were donated to the Asiatic Museum after 1917 and the collection of Oriental manuscripts and books became one of the greatest specialized libraries of its kind in the world -- a true treasure of Eastern cultures, housed on the shores of the Neva river.

By the end of the 1920s, the Academy had grown to include many departments, uniting scholars of many different areas of expertise. At this time the necessity arose to coordinate the activities of the various departments in order to make full use of the materials housed in the Asiatic Museum. In 1930, Prof. S.F. Oldenburg founded the ‘Group of Orientalists,’ in an attempt to unite all departments in one center. This new institution – later called the Institute of Oriental Studies – consisted of eleven departments. According to Oldenburg’s vision, there would be no department of Oriental manuscripts. Instead, the entire collection of texts would be included in the center’s Library. On May 23, 1930 the government authorities approved Oldenburg’s plan and the Institute of Oriental Studies was born. The Asiatic Museum’s entire collection was passed on to the Institute.

Although the Institute functions successfully to this day, it has had its share of troubles, beginning in the mid-1930s. The Stalinist repressions of the Russian scholarly elite cut the staff of the Institute by half. World War II began soon after. Many scholars never returned from battle and others died during the Leningrad Blockade. Of those that survived, many were forced to leave during evacuations. In addition to the suffering of the people, the manuscripts suffered as well. They were stored in the basement of the Library of the Academy of Sciences. Two Fellows of the Institute, Olga Petrovna Petrova and Alexander Nikolaevich Boldyrev, remained there in an attempt to save the manuscripts from being damaged by the extensive shelling and other hazards of war. Although they are no longer with us, we continue to treasure them in our memories.

In the 1930s, the Institute was required to focus on socio-political problems. Some members of Comintern contributed to this and young people from specialized high schools for workers replenished the Institute’s staff. One of the main goals of the Institute became the study of the languages and modern literatures of the Central Asian countries that were Russia’s colonies at the time. The study of the rich heritage of the manuscripts was temporarily deemed unnecessary, although the importance of this sort of research should not be underestimated. Through the understanding of important moments in the cultures and history of the ancient and medieval Orient, it becomes possible to more clearly understand the contemporary situation of this part of the world.

Despite the fact that this work was not valued, some scholars continued their research of Arabic manuscripts, new private collections of Tibetan texts acquired from Buryatia, Mongol manuscripts and Chinese scrolls from Dunhuang (brought by the S.F. Oldenburg expedition in 1914-1915). Iona Ginzburg began compiling a catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts that was never completed due to his death in the Leningrad Blockade. His catalogue was published for the first time in 2002.

In 1950, the Institute of Oriental Studies was granted a new home in a portion of the Novo-Mikhailovsky palace, an excellent location on the Neva, just opposite the Peter and Paul Fortress. However, the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences decided in the same year to move the Institute to Moscow. The main reason for the move was that Moscow authorities deemed the studies of the modern history, literature, economics and politics of Asian and Middle Eastern countries to be unsatisfactory. The Department of Oriental Manuscripts, headed by D.I. Tikhonov, remained in Leningrad only because there was no suitable place for it in Moscow at the time.

The department of manuscripts was moved to the ballroom of the Novo-Mikhailovsky palace. Also housed in the same palace were archaeologists, physicists and television specialists. This was by no means an ideal home for the manuscripts, as they suffered the constant shaking of floors and walls caused by machines at work. The manuscripts and extensive library consisting of approximately a million volumes had to be re-arranged in a relatively small space. Young researchers were hired to work at the department processing the manuscripts. Later, as specialists, their knowledge became the foundation of the current success of the Leningrad/St Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies / Institute of Oriental Manuscripts (IOM).

Within five years it became clear that the Department of Manuscripts was no longer vast enough to provide for the growing staff of manuscript researchers relying upon the rich heritage of the Petersburg-Leningrad Institute of Oriental studies. A proposal was made to reintegrate the Department into the Leningrad Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies and to appoint Academician Joseph Abgarovich Orbeli as its head. The Institute began to dedicate itself to the direct preservation of the manuscripts. The Fellows compiled academic catalogues and worked to publish critical and facsimile editions of the texts in the collection.

Beginning in 1844 and extending through World War I, all Russian consuls in the East were required to search for and purchase Eastern manuscripts and old printed books for the Asiatic Museum.

Previously mentioned, the acquisition of the J.L. Rousseau collection was bought in two portions, in 1819 and in 1825. In total, 700 exquisite Islamic manuscripts were donated to the Asiatic Museum.

P.L. Schilling made another important contribution to the Asiatic Museum. Between 1829 and 1841 he donated a total of 2,600 items, which included Chinese, Mongol, Manchu, Tibetan, Indian and Japanese texts.

In the beginning of the 20th century S.F. Oldenburg’s Dunhuang expedition and P.K. Kozlov’s Mongol-Sichuan expedition resulted in the acquisition of a unique collection of Chinese Dunhuang manuscript fragments (4th – 11th century) and Tangut manuscripts (12th – 13th century) from Khara-Khoto. The Dunhuang manuscripts were catalogued only in 2000. The collection consists of 360 complete scrolls and 19,000 fragments. The catalogue of the Tangut manuscripts was completed only a few years earlier. In total, P.K. Kozlov brought approximately 9,000 volumes of Tangut manuscripts and xylographs and approximately 3,000 Chinese ones.

Consuls and embassy officers in Central Asia at the end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century sent Sanskrit, Uigur, Sogdian, Persian and Tibetan texts, as well as other manuscripts from 1000 AD. Those who sent back texts included N.F.Petrovsky, N.N.Krotkov, A.A.Dyakov, V.Roborovsky, and I.P.Lavrov who worked in Central Asia. In addition, texts were sent back by scholars who made exploratory trips to the oases of Eastern Turkestan.

Once the Russian Empire acquired parts of Central Asia, the Islamic collections significantly increased. This was due to the numerous expeditions organized to purchase manuscripts. The result of one of these expeditions was the purchase by the famous scholar, V.A. Ivanov, of over 100 manuscripts in Bukhara.

Among the unique collections acquired by the Institute of Oriental Studies after 1932 is a collection of Sogdian manuscripts from Pendjikent – the so-called Mugh mountain manuscripts. Documents found there can be dated earlier than 721 AD. This was the year in which Devashtich, the last independent ruler of Samarkand, was executed by Arabs. Most of his people were killed, as well.

Currently there are 84,485 manuscripts catalogued by the Fellows of the IOM.

Following is a brief description of a few collections, which should give the reader a good idea of the “Sea of Writing” housed at the Institute:

The collection of Arabic manuscripts includes texts in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Kurdish, Afghan and Malay. In total, there are approximately 15,000 items. The earliest texts are vellum folia from the Qu’ran. They are written in Kufic calligraphy and can be dated between the 8th and 10th century AD. There are many Qu’rans written by hand and decorated with colored ornamentation and gold, but they are all from later dates. As we know, the Islamic faith forbid the decoration of sacred and secular texts with images of humans or animals. No one should dare to depict Allah as he is the only creator of the world and an attempt at creating his image would be considered an insult. There is one exception to this rule and that is a book by Al-Hariri (1054 -1122), entitled Makam (Short Stories). The manuscript was written in approximately 1237 and includes 98 miniatures and 40 unwans, ornaments serving as headings of each story.

In contrast to the Arabic manuscripts, those of Persia are decorated with rich miniatures, bright colors and gilding. There are many albums of pictures, entitled Muraqa. The earliest Persian manuscript is dated 1143. In total, there are 3,181 Persian and Tajik manuscripts. There is one particularly beautiful and well-rendered album of Indian and Persian miniatures (16th – 18th century) purchased in Isfahan on the tsar’s orders. It combines both the Mogul and Isfahan schools of painting. The backs of both miniatures are decorated with calligraphy. The best calligraphers worked diligently writing poems in various scripts. Fine frames depicting tiny plants, either in bright gilding or in restful pastels, enclose the miniatures and give the album a special beauty.

The Turkic manuscript collection has fewer varieties of Turkic languages than the collection in Istanbul or Uzbekistan, but it exceeds all other considerable libraries of Turkic texts as far as quality of manuscripts and number of subjects included.

Although impossible to describe all the collections held at the Institute, it is sufficient to indicate some of the most unique ones.

First of all, there is the collection of Dunhuang manuscripts (4th -11th century) from the caves near Mogao (North-East China, modern Gansu province). The majority of the Dunhuang manuscripts are Buddhist. There was a time when Dunhuang was an enormous monastic cave complex that included monasteries, libraries, designated rooms for the writing of texts, Buddhist universities and schools. In addition, Dunhuang was an important stop on the Silk Road. Similar Dunhuang collections are kept at the Paris National Library and at the British Library. These manuscripts are highly valued in China. A Shanghai publishing house, The Old Book, has published a number of albums with the facsimile copies of items from various collections.

The Tangut manuscript and document collection is also of great value. The manuscripts were discovered in 1909 by colonel P.K. Kozlov during his excavations in a suburgan located in the north-west of the ghost city, Khara-Khoto. Along with a female tomb decorated with a number of statues of Buddhist saints and deities seated in front of the sacred books, there was a walled-in library of manuscripts and xylographs in Tangut, Chinese and Tibetan. All the manuscripts and xylographs are from the time of the great Tangut state, Xie Xia (982-1227), destroyed by Chingis-khan. The earliest of the xylographs is dated 1084. Along with a great number of Buddhist treatises, the collection contains some dictionaries, grammars, Tangut law codes, Tangut translations of Chinese classics, as well as many administrative and official papers and letters. The possibility of Tangut studies as a separate discipline existed in the 1930s, thanks to the efforts of N.A. Nevsky, but his work was limited to a few years, as Stalinists executed him in 1937. In any case, he laid the foundations for Tangut studies by deciphering Tangut-Chinese and Tangut-Tangut dictionaries and making the first rough description of Tangut grammar, which was developed by later generations of scholars.

The Institute also houses one of the world’s greatest collections of Tibetan xylographs and manuscripts which includes more than 20,000 volumes and contains works by famous teachers of the most important sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The earliest Tibetan xylographs and manuscripts were found in the Dunhuang caves and in the Khara-Koto suburgan. A computer database of the collection, supported by the American Ancient Classic Input Project, is nearing completion. At the end of 2006, work on a new cataloguing system and an academic catalogue was begun.

There is a large collection of Eastern Christian manuscripts in Syrian, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian. The earliest items date from the 12th – 13th century.

The collection of biblical literature includes texts in Hebrew, bilingual texts in Hebrew and Greek and translations of the Bible into Arabic. It is a very valuable collection and closer study of the texts should begin in the near future.

Currently, scholars of the IOM have processed and catalogued the bulk of the principal texts in the collections. Academic descriptions of Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Korean, Kurdish, Japanese, Mongol, Afghan and other collections, in more than 40 volumes, have been published. There are both brief descriptions as well as detailed catalogues that supply scholars with information important to their textological study and research into sources.

The descriptions of the manuscript collections have permitted scholars to select the most interesting texts to study and publish first. At the beginning of the 1960s a large project was begun publishing critical editions of texts. In this series, entitled Literary Monuments of the Eastern Peoples, first editions were published of some important texts of Persian literature, unique Arabic, Turkic and Mongol texts as well as rare Chinese, Korean and Japanese fiction and historical literature. Another series, Written Monuments of the East, brought about the publication of the most precious Tangut and Chinese manuscripts from Khara-Khoto and Dunhuang, along with Sanskrit treatises on Buddhist philosophy from Eastern Turkestan. In the Cultures of the East (Materials and Studies) series, more than 30 monographs were published, combining the forces of scholars from many academic centers in Russia.

All documents connected with the activities of the Institute are kept at the Archive of Orientalists. These materials have been systematically collected there since the establishment of the Institute in 1930. There are papers, both complete and incomplete, from all of the Institute’s fellows, except for the Academicians and the corresponding members of the Academy of Sciences. Their works are kept at the Archive of the Academy of Sciences. The earliest dated material from these collections is from the 16th century. In total, the Archive contains 131 collections, including approximately 60,000 items. The most valuable items in the archives include works of N.J.Bichurin, N.A.Nevsky, V.A.Zhukovsky, O.M.Kovalevsky, A.E.Snesarev, among others.

Dr. M. I. Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya

Translated by M. Rausse and Dr A.Zorin

Last Updated ( 06/05/2008 )

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