Sammlung Refaiya

The Refaiya Library

The collection of approximately 3200 Oriental manuscripts at Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig also includes the so-called "Refaiya" (Rifā‛īya), the private library of the Rifā‛ī family from Damascus. Carefully preserved and handed down over several centuries until the 19th century, it is a unique example of a cohesive, traditional Arabic-Islamic family library. The preservation in its historical form goes back to the direct acquisition by the Prussian Consul and Arabist Johann Gottfried Wetzstein from its last owner, ʿUmar Efendi al-Rifāʿī al-Ḥamawī, in 1853.

Refaiya Library comprises 488 manuscripts, including 89 composite manuscripts. In the course of the acquisition process, some objects were sorted out, while others were added to the collection, so that the 432 volumes initially catalogued under the shelfmark D.C. were augmented to 488 volumes during the years 1853 to 1855. For the most part, the manuscripts are carefully written exemplars with Oriental leather bindings, or covers of cardboard, coloured paper or marbled paper. Part of the collection are 16 ornamented and illuminated books, as well as, according to the Orientalist Fleischer, twelve possible autographs. Concerning the works’ contents, Fleischer pointed out that works on Qurʾanic science and religion, commentaries and meta-commentaries typical in Near Eastern mosque and madrasa libraries are kept "within reasonable bounds" in this private library, and that the formation of the Refaiya collection shows an apparent systematic character (cf. Fleischer, Heinrich Leberecht: Die Refaiya. In: ZDMG 8 , 1854, 573-588, p. 575). Refaiya Library is in fact representative of many traditional fields of Islamic knowledge with a comparatively high share of poetry (44 objects) and mysticism (41 objects). Furthermore, Refaiya Library also includes several texts from genres that are rarely or not at all found in public Islamic manuscript libraries, such as historiographical works, biographies, belles lettres / adab literature, travelogues, hunting literature, natural sciences, and last but not least, eroticism.

The oldest manuscript, the highly valuable Vollers No. 505 is a multiple text manuscript containing three works. Two of them are dated 990 AD (380 H) and contain Diwans (a collection of poems) of the poets Abū Ṭālib ʿAbd Manāf and Abū al-Aswad al-Duʾalī. The third work, the Diwan of Suḥaim ʿAbd Ban al-Ḥasḥās (Vollers 505c), is incomplete and not dated, but can be attributed with high probability to the same century (or year?), since all three works are written by the same copyist. The most recent dated manuscript originates from the year 1262/1846 (No. 758). Although the Refaiya library preserves manuscripts from all centuries, there is a stronger focus on works from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The remarkably large number of secondary entries, such as ownership statements and reading annotations, in nearly all manuscripts indicate that the library was actively used. These marginal notes, going beyond merely referring to the content of the works, are proof of century-long intensive intellectual engagement connected to the Rifāʿī family and previous owners.

The Refaiya bears the traces of its history, the history of its owners and users. It constitutes the cultural archive of an Islamic scholarly tradition of knowledge and books which perished when it was sold. Thanks to its material condition and the fact that it was put together on the basis of individual preferences, it provides answers to cultural and intellectual historical questions and offers a glance into the intellectual and cultural interests of its owners directly prior to the early stages of modernisation, the effects of which radically changed all sectors of public and private life, to the point that the Refaiya lost its value and use as a manuscript library.

Database-supported cataloguing, research and digital presentation of the Refaiya (2008−2013)

Within the scope of a DFG-funded project, Refaiya Library was subject to academic research in addition to database development and its digital presentation from 2008 to 2013. The comprehensive purpose of the project was to study and catalogue the Refaiya in relation to its original historical-cultural context and inherent function and significance.

The historical research perspective aimed at reconstructing the history of a pre-modern Arabic-Islamic private library passed down through generations in addition to illustrating its roots within the Ottoman Syria social, cultural and political context. The trilingual database (English, German and Arabic) and the digitisation facilitated the presentation of the Damascene family library on the Internet and has made the manuscripts accessible for further research at an international level, including the Islamic world.

Research on the manuscript notes in the Refaiya

Complementary to the historical research perspective, the codicological analysis concentrates on the individual manuscript by examining the numerous secondary entries, colophons, marginal notes, collations, physical characteristics etc. in order to obtain detailed information regarding the life cycle of the manuscripts and consequently the library itself.

The following classification according to types of manuscript notes applies:

  • owner
  • endower
  • transmitter
  • collation annotation
  • reader
  • vendor
  • birth annotation
  • death annotation
  • miscellaneous

Systematically recorded in a database, these often short and seemingly inconspicuous notes, usually consisting only of names and devotional formulas, can nevertheless answer an astonishing number of questions. Which social classes had access to books? What material value did the manuscripts have? Which titles were met with particular interest? Which genres and books were also read by a Christian and Jewish readership? In addition, the entries also provide information on the age and transmission of individual manuscripts or, as in the case of the Refaiya, the development of entire libraries.

Bindings in the Refaiya collection (exemplary selection)

The Refaiya binding-database is a pilot project that for the first time systematically presents and catalogues Islamic book bindings online. Overall, the database serves as a comparative basis for the ornamentation of Islamic book bindings which will in the future facilitate the chronological and local classification of bindings. The classification and description of the ornaments is based on the standard work by Max Weisweiler (1962). Each dataset is divided into a general and a detailed s. The general description provides information on the complete binding, whereas the detailed descriptions are dedicated to specific parts and ornaments of the binding (front and back cover, fore-edge flap, envelope flap). True-to-scale-representations of rubbings of the complete binding as well as its single ornaments serve as images. The advantage of rubbings over digitised images is that they allow for a more precise and high-contrast display of the binding. By linking the binding descriptions with the catalogue entry of the relevant manuscript, both the rubbings and the scans of the book bindings can be viewed.

The watermarks

Despite its relevance to cultural history, the study of watermarks on European paper imported into Islamic countries for manuscript production has so far received little attention in Islamic codicology. The systematic cataloguing and analysis of the watermarks in the Refaiya Library aims at contributing to the provision of new evidence in this field from which interdisciplinary research on the impact of paper in terms of economic, social and cultural structures will benefit as well. Initially, the project examined the following questions on the basis of a few dated manuscript and a preliminary review of the motifs:

  • motif groups and number of motifs in the manuscripts
  • proportion of dated and undated manuscripts on watermark paper
  • proportion of the mixture of different types of paper in the manuscripts
  • European production sites that exported paper to the Middle East
  • watermarks as a means of dating undated manuscripts

Further information