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Leiden Yemeni manuscripts now digitally available

Leiden University Libraries (UBL) recently digitized circa 150 Yemeni manuscripts and has made them freely available for research and education. The manuscripts, dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, were digitized as part of the Zaydi Manuscript Tradition project. Yemen has been marked by conflict in the past few years. Through this digitization project, these manuscripts are now freely available at a time when Yemen’s rich literary heritage is under ever-increasing pressure.

The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition project

The extraordinarily rich and unique literary tradition of the Zaydi Shiite Muslims, which has been flourishing in Yemen for over seven hundred years, is under serious pressure. Extremist groups and indiscriminate bombardments are destroying many of the unique manuscript collections gathered over more than seven hundred years through intensive cultural exchange on the Arabian Peninsula and far beyond. Many of these manuscripts were scattered over different continents in the last few hundred years. The Leiden Special Collections hold circa 150 of these manuscripts. In 2017, Professor Sabine Schmidtke (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) received a grant for the digitization of the Leiden manuscripts and many others in Western and Arabic collections in the Zaydi Manuscript Tradition project. The Leiden Zaydi manuscripts will soon be available through the Zaydi Manuscript Tradition project’s platform but are already available through the UBL Digital Collections.

Digitization and conservation

The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition project was not only a chance for the UBL to make an important part of our Middle Eastern manuscript collections available for remote research, education and the general public, but also an opportunity to look at the state of conservation of the manuscripts. Karin Scheper, conservator at UBL, subjected every manuscript slated for digitization to rigorous inspection. She wrote about some of her findings regarding one manuscript in the Leiden Special Collections blog.

Yemeni manuscripts in the Leiden Special Collections

The Yemeni manuscripts in the Leiden Special Collections came to Leiden in two distinct stages. The first part of the collection to come to Leiden was collected by Cornelis Adriaanse (1896–1964), Dutch consul in Jeddah, who travelled to Yemen several times in the 1930s to sign a declaration of friendship and co-operation with the ruler of Yemen, Imam al-Mutawakkil Yahya. In the years following his visits, the manuscripts came to Leiden via Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857 – 1936). The second part of the collection only came to Leiden around the last turn of the century, through contacts of former curator Professor Jan Just Witkam. Manuscripts from this collection date between 1632 and 1941 and cover an impressive range of subjects, from language, literature and history to religion and Islamic Law.

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