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Discovering Primary SourcesFrom Minasian ms 40, Nizam al-Din Nishaburi’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest

Discovering Primary Sources

A team of graduate students is working with the UCLA Library’s Special Collections staff, Middle East Bibliographer and Digital Library Coordinator to catalog the library’s extensive collections of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman manuscripts.

By Howard Batchelor

The UCLA Library’s Department of Special Collections has long been an important destination for scholars of the post-classical Islamic traditions of law, philosophy, science, religion and literature. The library holds several important collections in this area, including that of Caro Minasian, an Iranian physician who collected manuscripts in Isfahan during the 1930s and 1940s, and who also gave the library the Gladzor Gospels, an Armenian treasure dating from the early fourteenth century. Minasian’s diverse collection included many manuscripts of medical interest that are now stored in UCLA’s Biomedical Special Collections. These have been extensively cataloged and microfilmed, but the remainder of his collection is known only through the brief descriptions of Muhammad Danish’pazhuh who described UCLA’s Near East collections as part of an Iranian scholarly project during the 1970s.

In 2000, the Library’s Middle East Bibliographer David Hirsch proposed that access to the collections could be improved by creating a digital version of the Danish’pazhuh catalog. The project then became part of UCLA’s Digital Library Program, whereby graduate students with the necessary language skills and scholarly motivation were recruited to take on the task of examining each manuscript and creating a record. The current team includes Ghazzal Dabiri (Persian manuscripts), Ahmed Alwishah and Hassan Hussain (Arabic manuscripts), and Mehmet Sureyya Er (Ottoman manuscripts), and has also benefited from the work of Dalia Yasharpour and Lars Schumaker. The team is working on both the Minasian Collection and Collection 896, a repository of Ottoman Turkish poetry.

David Hirsch oversees the work of representing the names of authors and the titles of works in romanized form and in their original languages, while the Digital Library Program is preparing an online catalog that will support searching and record display in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish, using a Unicode-compliant Oracle 9-i database and Java Enterprise2. Among the many and various challenges posed by this project, the technical goal of creating a system that can support the original languages stands out as a challenge for library system architecture.

The project has very strong endorsement from UCLA’s new University Librarian Gary Strong, who supports the goal of making resources directly accessible in non-Western languages. The project has also received guidance and encouragement from Professor Hossein Ziai, Director of Iranian Studies at UCLA, noted for his contributions to the study of Islamic philosophy, and from George Saliba, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University, who has written of the role played by Arabic astronomers in the “Copernican Revolution.”

The goal of the project is to provide accurate manuscript description in an online catalog that can also be used internally to capture commentary by visiting scholars, and that can support the use of primary sources in teaching at UCLA and other universities. Digitization services can be provided to UCLA faculty and scholars elsewhere who wish to investigate manuscripts more closely. Two mss from the Minasian Collection are currently accessible to students in Professor Michael Cooperson’s Arabic 250 course. The Digital Library Program welcomes interest by Arabic and Persian specialists in all disciplines.

The work is often justified by the excitement of discovery. Included here is a page from Minasian ms 40, the autograph commentary of the Persian astronomer Nizam al-Din Hasan Nishaburi, written in Arabic in CE 1326, on Ptolemy’s Almagest (Sharh al-majasti). Here, as elsewhere in the work, Nishaburi is teaching Euclidean geometry.

Howard Batchelor is UCLA Digital Library Coordinator.

Center for Near Eastern Studies