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An introduction to some of the manuscript collections can be found in Faith and Fable; Islamic manuscripts from Cambridge University Library (PDF)

The Library’s Middle Eastern manuscripts and books have been incorporated into the collections from the early years of the Library's foundation and throughout its later history.

Botanicum Antiquum; pictorial guide to medicinal plants from the Hebrew manuscripts collection. Ms. Ee.5.7Earliest collections

The acquisition of the first Hebrew books, dating back to the Library's earliest years, probably originated from the local Jewish communities. At a later date, Christian clerics gave further impetus to the study of Hebrew for scholarly purposes and, by the time a notable University collection of books emerged in the early 15th century, a small number of Hebrew books were already included. A sounder basis for Hebrew study grew in the University from the sixteenth century after the Regius chair in Hebrew was founded in 1540.

The last quarter of the sixteenth century brought more important Hebrew books to the Library including valuable early Bibles. The early seventeenth century saw the further growth of Hebrew scholarship in England and of printing in Hebrew script. Books in Arabic also began to appear in the collections from the early 17th century and Persian from the early 18th century.

Notable collections

Abraham Whelock, a notable Arabic scholar and collector, who was appointed University Librarian in 1629, brought about significant additions to both the Arabic and Hebrew collections. He negotiated the transfer to Cambridge of the books and manuscripts of Thomas van Erpe (Erpenius), the noted Dutch orientalist. This collection was originally intended, after the death of Erpenius, for the University of Leiden. Their purchase for Cambridge was initially negotiated by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who was in the Netherlands on diplomatic business. Later, after Buckingham met a violent death, the eventual transfer of the collection to Cambridge was negotiated via his widow Catherine, Duchess of Buckingham, in 1632. The Erpenius collection contained 93 manuscripts and included the commentary on the Qur’an in Persian and Arabic which is the oldest Persian manuscript in the Library.

Other significant Arabic collections were also collected by Whelock who obtained books from the Arabic scholar William Bedwell, including a preliminary, unpublished work on a Lexicon.  John Selden was responsible for the acquisition of books from the collection of Isaac Faragi in 1648 which comprised both Hebrew and Persian manuscripts and many books. Further books and manuscripts in Arabic arrived with the Royal Library in 1715.

More manuscripts and books came to the Library in the 17th century from the collections of the scholars Richard Holdsworth, Henry Lucas and Edmund Castell. In 1727, George Lewis, a chaplain in the East India Company donated 76 manuscripts mainly in Persian and some in Arabic. In the nineteenth century the missionary Claudius Buchanan presented the library with important Hebrew and Syriac works, including the famous Buchanan Bible.

J.L. Burckhardt (1784-1817), the Swiss orientalist and traveller, bequeathed over 300 manuscripts, mostly in Arabic, which came to the Library in 1819. These outnumbered any previous collection in Arabic and it still forms the Library’s most important single collection in the language.

The collection of E. H. Palmer (1840-1882) came to the Library in 1878. He was Professor of Arabic from 1871 to 1883 and travelled in the Middle East, and was eventually murdered in Arabia while on a diplomatic mission. His manuscript collection consists mainly of early Qur'an fragments and include many examples of early kufic script.

Later, in the nineteenth century, books and manuscripts were donated by R.E. Lofft and H.G. Williams (Professor of Arabic) and William Wright. During the tenure of William Robertson Smith, the Bible scholar, as Librarian (1886-89) the collections were again much increased.

E.G. Browne, Professor of Persian (1862-1926), purchased many manuscripts for the Library’s collections during his travels in the Middle East and, in particular, Iran. Around 500 manuscripts were collected in all which were bequeathed to the Library after his death. He also published the first comprehensive catalogues of the Islamic Manuscrpt collections which are still is use today.

The end of the 19th century was marked by the acquisition of the Genizah fragments from the synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo. After discovery by two Scottish sisters, Margaret Gibson and Agnes Lewis, their transfer to Cambridge was undertaken by Solomon Schechter and Charles Taylor. It is the largest single manuscript collection in the Library.

Another collection of fragments, also from Cairo, is the Michaelides collection bought from an antiquities dealer of Greek origin. This comprises 1000 fragments in Arabic written on papyri and paper in Arabic with some fragments in Coptic and Greek.

At present there are over 3,500 Arabic manuscripts, over 1000 in Hebrew and over 1200 in Persian with smaller numbers in Syriac, Turkish, Armenian, Georgian and Ethiopic in the collection.

Cataloguing the manuscripts

Printed catalogues of the manuscript collections have been made over the years, many of them by Cambridge scholars; there is a full listing of printed catalogues available. The most comprehensive published catalogues of the Arabic and Persian collections are that of E.G. Browne (1900), R.A. Nicholson (1932) and A.J. Arberry (1952). More recent acquisitions are entered in a card catalogue in the Department's office. 
The ‘FIHRIST’, and ‘LibrarySearch’ on-line catalogues contain records for the Islamic manuscript collections in Arabic and Persian and can be consulted in English or in Arabic script.

A number of scholars attempted to catalogue the Hebrew manuscript collections including S.M. Schiller-Szinessy, a Hungarian-born Hebrew scholar who came to Cambridge in 1863. He was engaged to write the first Hebrew catalogue but this was left incomplete on his death. Another attempt was made by Herbert Loewe who completed a preliminary handlist and also by Jacob Leveen but the task was finally accomplished by the publication of a complete catalogue by Stefan and Shulamit Reif in 1997.

Bibliography on the Near and Middle Eastern Collections

Rare books collections

The Library also has a collection of over 2,000 rare books printed before 1800 A.D. in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian Ottoman Turkish and numerous other languages on the area. There are also many publications from the early 20th century. All of these can be found in the Library’s ‘NEWTON’, and ‘LibrarySearch’ on-line catalogues and can be consulted in the Rare Books Reading Room.