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This was an interesting and challenging joint project running from 2012-2016, between Cambridge University Library and an Italian researcher, Dr Alba Fedeli, to digitise and research an important Qur’anic palimpsest (Or. 1287). The digitisation and imaging processing was jointly funded by Cambridge University Library and The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA), while the digital edition and recovery of the text produced by Fedeli were part of a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This Mingana-Lewis palimpsest contains portions of two ancient Qurʼanic manuscripts probably written in the 7th or 8th century CE. The term 'palimpsest' describes a recycling process of manuscripts where the original text (or under-writing) has been erased to create a clear surface for writing a new text. The underwritten text of palimpsests can be enhanced and recovered with the help of modern technology.

The project to reconstruct the Mingana-Lewis palimpsest was originally proposed by Dr Fedeli to the University Library in September 2009. The project presented many challenges in all its phases, such as handling the fragile manuscript, as well as the technical aspects involved in the image processing and the digital editing of the text. Advice about the special imaging of palimpsests was sought from experts in other institutions. One outcome of their co-operation was the creation of a set of best practice guidelines for the digital imaging of palimpsests.

The Digital Content Unit at the University Library photographed the palimpsest under UV, infrared and natural light. Alba Fedeli processed the images producing two pictures of each page of the Qurʼanic fragments: beside the first original image, as seen under natural light, she produced a second processed image with the over-writing virtually erased by modifying the black ink of the upper-writing to resemble the colour of the parchment; and thirdly an enhanced image highlighting the visible parts of the brown under-writing and adding the hypothetical missing letters’ sections covered by the over-writing. This third image has an accompanying documentary digital edition of the under-writing created by Dr Fedeli in cooperation with the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham. A video that shows the technique she used to create a hypothetical retracement of the Qu'ranic undertext in the palimpsest is available here.

The digitised fragments are housed in the Cambridge Digital Library along with transcriptions and a scholarly essay describing the process and findings. The digitisation enabled Dr Fedeli to analyse the content of the palimpsest, and compare it to the edition given by Alphonse Mingana and Agnes Smith Lewis in 1914. The results of Dr Fedeli's research on the palimpsest have been presented at a number of international conferences since the completion of the digitisation project in 2010. She has also published several papers. Her book, after her dissertation ‘Early Qur’ānic manuscripts, their text, and the Alphonse Mingana papers held in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Birmingham’, is forthcoming.

Key Institutions

Cambridge University Library, The Islamic Manuscript Association, Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing.

Key People

Dr Alba Fedeli, Research Fellow in Religious Studies, Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) and Honorary Research Fellow of ITSEE (Birmingham). Research, image processing and digital edition of the palimpsest.
Don Manning, Head of Imaging Services, University of Cambridge, Project manager.
Grant Young, University of Cambridge, Digitisation and Digital Preservation Specialist.
Les Goodey, Senior Photographer.
Chris Titmus, Hamilton Kerr Institution; Consultant Photographer.
Fabrizio Fenucci, independent photographer, Milan, Italy
Deborah Farndell, Jan Coleby and James Bloxam, Cambridge University Library, conservators handling the manuscript.
Yasmin Faghihi,  Head of the Library’s Near and Middle Eastern Department.
Dr Catherine Smith, Research Fellow and Technical Officer in the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, University of Birmingham.
Dr Hugh Houghton, Reader in New Testament Textual Scholarship and Deputy Director, Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, University of Birmingham.
Prof David Parker, Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, University of Birmingham.

Funders

Cambridge University Library, The Islamic Manuscript Association, and Arts and Humanities Research Council.