Campus Gotha, Gotha Research Library

A Treasury of Books Across the Indian Ocean: Isma'ili Manuscripts from to Yemen to Gujarat

12. Oct 2022, 6.15 pm
Gotha Manuscript Talks
Gotha Research Library (FBG)
Dr. Olly Akkerman (Freie Universität Berlin)
Event type
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Lecture by Dr. Olly Akkerman (Freie Universität Berlin) in the digital event series "Gotha Manuscript Talks" of the Gotha Research Library.

About the lecture:

This paper addresses the question of communities, and the mobility of their manuscripts between continents over the Indian Ocean. It tells the story of a manuscript repository found all over the pre-modern Muslim world: the khizanat al-kutub, or treasury of books. We focus on the survival of one such treasury of books, belonging to the Bohras, a small but vibrant South Asian Isma’ili community.

Through Bohra manuscript culture, we investigate how books that were once part of one of the biggest imperial book repositories of the medieval Muslim world, the khizanat of the Fatimids of North Africa and Egypt (909CE-1171CE), ended up having a rich social life among the Bohras across the Western Indian Ocean, starting in Yemen and ending in Gujarat. Under strict conditions of secrecy, and over several centuries, one khizana was turned into another, its manuscripts gaining new meanings in the new social realities in which they were preserved, read, transmitted, venerated and copied. What emerged was a new distinctive Bohra Ismaili manuscript culture shaped by its local contexts in Gujarat.

About the lecturer:

Olly Akkerman (Institute of Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin) is a specialist on Arabic manuscripts and Shi'i Islam. Her research examines the social life of manuscript repositories, and other forms of material culture among the Bohras in South Asia and the larger Western Indian Ocean. Her publications include “The Bohra Manuscript Treasury as a Sacred Site of Philology: a Study in Social Codicology” and a monograph: A Neo-Fatimid Treasury of Books in Gujarat: Arabic Manuscripts among the Alawi Bohras of South Asia (EUP).

About the series

Thinking Manuscript Provenance Beyond Europe

In the last decades, the issue of provenance has emerged as a topic of central concern in the study of manuscripts, and it has given rise to an entire field – Provenance Studies. Both among scholars and the general public, the engagement with the ownership and transmission of manuscripts and cultural heritage has increased awareness of the legacy of colonialism. Significant numbers of Arabic, Ottoman, and Persian manuscripts were transferred to European libraries, archives, museums, and collections due to imbalances of power, economic exploitation, and violent coercion. The study of the provenance of Middle Eastern manuscripts has allowed scholars to critically engage with this legacy and to open up new areas of research. However, manuscripts that were brought to Europe had often been in circulation for centuries, and other manuscripts never left the Middle East. Even during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European states and individuals were not the only – and often not necessarily the main – actors who transferred manuscripts. Taking the analytical angle of provenance, but refocusing it away from European actors thus allows us to ask new questions: How can we recover the agency of non-European actors in the field of manuscript movements? In which cultural, religious, or social milieus did manuscripts circulate in the Ottoman and Safavid Empires? How can the study of the provenance of manuscripts help us understand the nature and significance of books and book collections and material culture more generally in the Middle East? To what extent does the transfer of manuscripts from one owner to another shed light on social or economic disparities, on the social ascent or descent of individuals and groups? In what ways does it help us to understand the relations of such groups and individuals to institutions of learning and political elites?

The fall series of the Gotha Manuscript Talks 2022 is devoted to manuscript provenance beyond Europe. Mindful of the central relevance of provenance in the critical engagement with the colonial legacy, speakers engage with provenance as a tool for studying the social, economic, religious, and cultural horizons of those in North Africa and West Asia who owned, collected, sold, lent, bequeathed, and endowed books and book collections.


All events in the series take place digitally. Registration is not necessary. To participate, simply enter the linked Webex space.

To the Webex-Raum of the library


Curator of the Oriental Manuscript Collection
(Gotha Research Library)
Gotha Research Library (Gotha, Schlossplatz 1)