Click here to skip to content

Turkish and Turkic manuscripts

The British Library holds a world-class collection of Turkish manuscripts in Ottoman, Chaghatay (the classical East Turkic literary language) and other Turkic languages.
Seyyid Lokman

Kiyafet ul-insaniye. Seyyid Lokman on the physiognomy of the Ottoman Sultans, 997/1588-9. [Add.7880, 1v, illuminated heading of text] ©The British Library Board.

Ottoman Turkish

The British Library's manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish constitute a world-class collection. Its principal strengths lie in the areas of poetry and other belles-lettres; history and biography; and the traditional Islamic disciplines. The sciences are also fairly well represented. This brief guide describes just a few of these items.

Angels at prayer

Angels at prayer. 'Aca'ib ul-mahlukat, 10th/16th century. Sururi's translation of Kazvini on Wonders of Creation. ©The British Library Board [Add.7894, f.59v].

Important Ottoman literary manuscripts include, to name but a handful:

  • the Divan of Kadi Burhaneddin of Sivas, copied and illuminated during his lifetime, perhaps for him
  • an early copy of Ahmedi's Iskendername with signed illumination
  • Ahmedi's Divan
  • Serifi's Sehname, a translation of the Persian epic, finely illustrated
  • folk poetry and tales

Religious classics include:

  • several manuscripts of Füzuli's Hadikat us-suada, among them two illustrated ones from the 17th century
  • Lamii's rare Maktel-i Al-i Resul, with miniature painting
  • finely illuminated copies of Kutbeddin Izniki's Mukaddime and of Ismail Hakki's Marifetname

 In the field of religious verse we have some of the earliest copies of Asik Pasa's didactic Garibname.

Historical texts, too, are numerous. Notable, among dozens of important and rare texts, are:

  • the Pasaname of Abdi Beg, on Ken'an Pasa's Balkan campaign
  • Nusret-name, Mustafa Ali's chronicle of the Ottoman conquest of Georgia. 

An assortment of firmans and other state documents is held both in Asian and African Studies and in the British Library's western manuscript collections.

Also represented are:

  • astronomy
  • astrology
  • human and veterinary medicine
  • geography
  • natural history
  • horticulture and other sciences 

Rarities include the 15th century Güzide, on medicine, and a good copy of Bahriye, the atlas of Piri Reis.

Dunhuang manuscripts

The oldest manuscripts in the collection are the 59 fragments in Uygur, and six in Gök Turkish, included in the material collected from the Dunhuang caves and elsewhere on the marches of Chinese Turkistan by Sir Marc Aurel Stein. As well as pieces of Buddhist scripture and documents recording financial transactions, there are items such as a handbook of divination in so-called Turkic runic script (Or. 8212 (161)). Apart from their philological interest, these texts provide valuable evidence regarding the culture of the period.

Manual of divination

Manual of divination. In runic Turkic, 8th century. [Stein Collection. Or.8212(161), f.39] ©The British Library Board.

Eastern Turkish

Texts in Eastern Turkish of the Islamic era are more numerous: there are 148 in 75 volumes (of which 30 are in the India Office collections). A good many are fairly commonplace, but there are some rarities such as one of the earliest copies, datable to the 9th/15th century, of Rabguzi's Kisas ul-anbiya or 'Stories of the Prophets'. There is also a good copy of the Memoirs of the Moghul Emperor Babur in the original Chaghatay.

Early poetical classics in Eastern Turkish include copies of:

  • Hafiz Horezmi's Muhabbatnama
  • Haydar Talbe's Mahzan ul-asrar
  • Lutfi's Gul va Navruz
  • Amri's Dah nama

Manuscripts from Kashghar are well represented in the India Office holdings; they include:

  • biographies of religious figures
  • an account of Yakub Beg, one-time ruler of East Turkistan
  • the Chaghatay version of Mirza Haydar Duglat's famous history, Tarih-i Rasidi

As Rieu pointed out in his Catalogue of the Turkish manuscripts in the British Museum, published in 1888, the manuscripts in Eastern Turkish include many finely illuminated or illustrated copies. Among them are:

  • superb copies of the poems of 'Ali Sir Navayi, the greatest figure in Chaghatay letters, and other poets
  • Nusretname, a rare illustrated history of Chingiz Khan and his successors

Other languages

Manuscripts in Azeri Turkish are almost entirely poetical, such as the Divans of Hatayi, the renowned 16th century poet Füzuli of Baghdad, and (a rarity) that of Gavsi. One exception is Samname, a late legendary history of ancient Iran, which is in prose. 

In Turkmen we have an early copy of the poems of Mahtumkuli, regarded by the Turkmens as their national poet.

History of the collections

The British Library's Turkish and Turkic collections come from a number of sources. These include the Sloane and Harleian libraries, largely incorporated into the Library of the British Museum (the precursor of the British Library) at the time of its foundation. The collections were subsequently enriched by the manuscripts of four other scholar-collectors: Rich, Jaba, Gibb, and Rescher.

Several valuable works are to be found among the 124 manuscripts in Turkish amassed by Claudius Rich, British Resident at Baghdad in the early 19th century; Rich's collection was acquired in its entirety for the nation. Its treasures include the Kisas ul-anbiya in Chaghatay mentioned above. 

Another 49 volumes formed part of the collection of Auguste Jaba, once Russian consul at Erzurum, which include some rare poetical Divans. Several dozen manuscripts were also purchased from the Turkish scholar and collector Osman Oskar Rescher. 

In the 320 manuscripts collected by E.J.W.Gibb, author of the pioneering History of Ottoman poetry, the Library possesses an extraordinary treasury of Divan literature: volumes by authors famous and obscure, as well as dozens of copies of tezkires, literary anthologies with biographical notices of poets. Gibb also collected folk tales and epics, and works on religious and other subjects.

Other significant collections of Turkish manuscripts acquired up to 1880 are listed in the catalogue by Charles Rieu, including those of Hilgrove Turner and Sidney Churchill. Rieu also mentions many of the most important items received by the British Museum before 1800. Among the curious acquisitions from the later 19th century is the thesaurus of Sir James Redhouse, an enormous but incomplete combined dictionary in manuscript of Arabic, Persian and Turkish explained in English.

Some material was also acquired from the India Office Library, including seven manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish, containing ten works altogether, and several documents.

Since the 19th century, there have been no acquisitions on a comparable scale. Nevertheless, the British Library has continued to acquire Turkish manuscripts, including items of high academic importance.

Catalogues and guides

See this page for information on how to access the collections.