On 21 July 1535, Johannes Marquart von Königsegg found himself in the “capital of the Barbaric land called Thunis”, where he had joined a military expedition with the armies of Charles V against the Ottomans. During the sack of Tunis, which followed the conquest of the city, he pocketed a handwritten copy of the Qur’an, which he “carried away with [him] for [his] memory” and brought to Europe (note in a manuscript now kept in the Vadiana Library in St. Gall, VadSlg Ms 387, fol. 74v).
As this paper will show, in the course of the so-called Tunis expedition in 1535, the libraries of the Hafsids (the local ruling dynasty, c. 1250–1574) were plundered and many other manuscripts were taken as booty to Europe by the imperial armies of Charles V. There they were sold or donated to scholars and collectors of Arabic books. Both Arabic and European historiography declare the libraries of the Hafsids as lost since the Ottoman-European proxy wars in North Africa. Today, the Hafsid manuscripts are scattered in numerous European and Turkish collections – only a few manuscripts can still be located in Tunis.
The paper presents a selection of these Arabic manuscripts and focuses on the disruptive moment of the sack of Tunis and its libraries. It sheds light on the consequences this disruption had for the manuscript culture of the Hafsids and, more broadly, of the Maghrib. The paper explores the question of what the reconstructed corpus can still tell us today about the lost book culture of the Hafsids – and what it cannot.
Laura Hinrichsen is curatorial assistant at the Museum für Islamische Kunst in the Pergamonmuseum (Berlin). She studied Islamic Studies and Arabic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and Islamic Art and Archaelogy at Oxford University. Her research focuses on material culture in North Africa and the transfer of culture and knowledge in the Mediterranean. Her dissertation Looted Letters (Oxford 2021/22) deals with the Arabic manuscripts that were taken as booty to Europe in the course of the looting of Tunis in 1535.