Click here to skip to content
Image of angel

Sultan Baybars' Qur'an: transcript of audio

Alison Ohta, Curator at the Royal Asiatic Society, gives a personal view on Sultan Baybars' Qur'an in May 2007

Hear it in full now:

or play in your default media player (MP3, 12min 49sec, 5.2MB)

More audio
More about the Baybars Qur'an

Detail of page from Sultan Baybars' Quran with Alison Ohta

The Qur'an's commission

This was commissioned by Baybars when he was chamberlain to Nasir Muhammad, Sultan Nasir Muhammad.

He's called Baybars al-Jashnagir, which means 'taster'. This would have referred to his ceremonial role at court. If I was trying to approximate it today I suppose it would be a bit like being in Guards. He comes in as a young Mamluk, he then goes up through the ranks, at one time he's the head of the army, atabeg al-jaysh. He then deposes Nasir Muhammad, but before he deposes him, we're told that he builds this khanqa, this Sufi convent.

The Qur'an was finished in 1306, and the Sufi khanqa and his mausoleum was finished in 1309. But we don't actually know where the Qur'an was kept, exactly. We're told different things in the sources. Early sources say it was kept in the mosque of al-Hakim, where Baybars restored the minarets, so he had a relationship with the mosque, after the earthquake in about 1303. A later source of the 16th century tells us it was stored in the Sufi khanqa and this Qur'an was made for that khanqa.

Now, the problem is that Baybars was only in power for a year, and the other problem with this Qur'an is that there's no endowment document with it, that tells us that it was placed in a certain institution. Normally with these large volume Qur'ans there is a waqf document, a waqfiyah, an endowment inscription in it saying this was placed in this institution.

Why the Qur'an is so well preserved

So he may have put it in the mosque of al-Hakim to keep it safe until the building of his khanqa was completed. Or... in 1310, when Sultan al Nasir Muhammad comes back - of course he's not very pleased with Baybars, having been deposed by him, and he arrests him and executes him, and the first thing that Nasir Muhammad does is close down Baybars' khanqa, and it was closed I think for about twenty years, so maybe then the Qur'an was removed to the mosque of al-Hakim.

It's really in very very good condition. It doesn't look like something that was used very much! And maybe because of this background of delay between the commissioning of it and delay of the building it was destined for, or maybe because of its association with Baybars as well, it wasn't used that much. Because I have seen Qur'ans in Istanbul again, very large monumental Qur'ans, which certainly have been used, and have suffered the ravages of time, but this seems to have been preserved very well.

Mamluks: not really slaves

The Mamluks came to power in 1258 after the fall of the Ayyubids. Basically what you have is a military group taking over, and they establish themselves as this military elite. The problem with the Mamluks it was a case of survival of the fittest - whoever was top dog annihilated everyone else except his friends.

Mamluks were often described as slaves, because it comes from the Arabic word 'mamluka', 'to own'. But they weren't really slaves; they were a military elite whose ranks were increased - some people put the number at about 2,000 - every year coming in. They arrived in Cairo, they were then assigned or bought by the emirs or the sultan into his service. They were then housed in barracks, they were trained in the various arts of horsemanship and things like that, they became Muslims - in the later Mamluk period we actually have sort of school exercises which I often see as sort of the graduation dissertation in calligraphy. Some of them are terrible and some of them are very good! They then became Muslims and then they were freed, whereupon they joined this military elite, part of the administration. And they kept themselves very aloof; if they had children they could not become Mamluks. These are the people that go on to hold minor administrative positions.

'A mamaluke exercising' in Cairo outside Murad Bey's palace, by Sir Robert Ainslie, 1801 (British Library Images Online)

Why arts flourished in the Mamluk period

The other thing that's important about this period is why is there such a proliferation of patronage. I think one of the reasons is because the Mamluks to a certain extent had to demonstrate their piety to the indigenous Muslim population. Secondly they also needed to legitimise themselves, and they did this by building vast complexes. If you go to Cairo today you'll see all these madrasahs, colleges, khanqahs, mausolea, which were built and are there to this day - the khanqah of Baybars al-Jashnagir is still there.

And the other reason they probably did this, embarked on this patronage - which in turn of course led to proliferation of work in illumination of Qur'ans, woodwork (because all of these places had to be furnished) - was that when a Mamluk died, he couldn't pass on his wealth to his descendants. So, if he was an emir, he would build himself a mausoleum or a khanqah, and then he would endow that institution with shops and land which would produce income for that institution to carry on. But at the same time, he would then appoint his descendants or his heirs as supervisors of the waqf, who would then draw an income from it. So in a way there was a certain amount of economic self-interest! You know, looking after your own family once you've gone. But suddenly in this period you have this growth of patronage, building work, illumination of Qur'ans, metalwork, all sorts of things.

Cairo at that time is a really important cultural and economic centre, so lots of workmen come to work there. You also have the transfer of the Abbasid Caliphate there, the transfer after the fall of Baghdad in 1258 to the Mongols. The Mamluks had control of Mecca and Medina; they sought to legitimise their position, because if you think about where they came from, basically in this early period, according to the sources, they were mainly Kipchak Turks, from pagan tribes. But every year their ranks, if you like, were renewed with fresh intake of young Mamluks.

What makes this Qur'an unique

This is the earliest dated Mamluk Qur'an that we have. In the Mamluk period, and in the Ilkhanid period as well, it really is a very unique manuscript. There are lots of very special things about it. The script, the illuminations, the size - all of these things were unusual for that period, 1306-09. It really stands alone in the early Mamluk period.

Later on under Sultan Sha'ban then you have a resurgence and beautifully illuminated monumental Qur'ans which are completely colourful and amazing. And interestingly, if we look at the work of one of the illuminators Muhammad ibn Mubadir, it presages if you like the work of the later ones under Sultan Sha'ban.

Baghdad was a very important centre for calligraphers; ibn al-Mubadir's illumination shows that he probably had been trained in Baghdad, or certainly in Iraq, because of the similarities between that and the Mosul Qur'an, which was produced at the same time, which was also a monumental Qur'an, produced for Sultan Uljaytu.

This Qur'an manuscript is quite unique in that at the end of each of the seven parts - because it's in seven parts - it has the commissioning certificate on it. It's very unusual in that you have the two frontispieces and then the illumination that goes through at the fifth and tenth verse markers, plus places where you have to prostrate.

The illuminators: Sandal and Muhammad ibn al-Mubadir

One illuminator was called Sandal, who was a eunuch most probably with a name like that, also he didn't carry his father's name. He was the head illuminator, if you like. If you look at the Qur'an and you compare the text pages which are illuminated by Sandal you'll see he's got them on a background of pink with all these palmettes, ten-pointed stars which radiate out into strapwork. And the interstices, the spaces between the polygons and hexagons that are created from this strapwork contain these little palmettes. This you find in all media in the Islamic world, earlier than the Mamluk period. You find it in woodwork, metalwork, in fact the doors of the khanqa of Baybars are based on pointed stars with this strapwork. You find it on bookbindings, and you find it in stone, carved into the domes in the Mamluk period of the mosques and the mausolea.

The work of ibn al-Mubadir is a little bit different in this Qur'an. I supposed the nearest approximation to it would be looking at tile patterns, and it very much fits the tile patterns that you find in Iran and Anatolia.

This is because you can't have any representation, within the religious context, in Islamic art. I think they found other ways of expressing art forms. And the other way of course was through calligraphy and through the development of different scripts for different uses. This is in thuluth, probably in this period we would expect naskh being used. All of these different cursive scripts. The Mamluks never really take up figural representation big-time anyway! They tend to avoid it, whereas in Iran and other cultures you have miniature painted manuscripts.

Alison Ohta 'turning the pages' of the Baybars Qur'an in the entrance hall of the British Library. Special software allows members of the public to 'leaf through' this computerised version of the Qur'an, as well as several other great books.

Earlier on when I was looking at the Turning the Pages you can see it very distinctly the difference between the work of ibn al Mubadir and that of Sandal. There's a sort of steely, tight feel to the work of ibn al Mubadir, whereas I think of Sandal as being more expansive - palmettes and things!

Paper, ink and gold

It's Baghdadi paper. Baghdadi refers to size because various papers were described various names according to their size, and of course Baghdadi is very large. Copied in gold, and again this is what makes it a very valuable manuscript.

It was outlined in black, black ink. The script is a form of thuluth, which is one of the cursive scripts. Again this is unusual because thuluth was not really used for copying Qur'ans at this time, it was mainly used for surah headings. And then of course you would have used liquid gold for the actual script.

The scribe: a lazy genius

The scribe, who was ibn al Wahid, born in Damascus, studied under the very famous calligrapher (who to this day is regarded as one of the finest calligraphers of all time) Yakut al Mustasimi.

He worked in the mosque of al Hakim. He was a very good linguist. A Qur'an written by him could sell for as much as a thousand dinars, without any illumination or binding.

But we're also told that he was very lazy, and that he used to get his students to copy work for him, and then he'd sell this as his own, and he only gave his students the 400 dinars! We know he spoke Persian, he came from Baghdad, and if we look at perhaps the link with the illuminator Muhammad ibn Mubadir, about whom we know very little, perhaps that was the thing that brought them together.

Money no object

We're told by ibn Iyas in the sixteenth century, we're told that Baybars spent 1,600 dinars on these volumes so that it could be written in gold. He also describes it as one of the wonders of the age. It's mentioned several times in the sources, and again that's quite unusual. You don't really find - this is a very well documented manuscript, a very well documented Qur'an.

[Note: A typical monthly budget of a middle-class family at this time was two dinars, making the cost of the Qur'an very roughly equivalent to several million pounds sterling today.]