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Subject guide

Hebrew, Semitic and Armenian Special Collections

The Library of Leiden University holds c. 550 manuscripts and an extensive collection of rare printed books in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, the languages of Ethiopia, South Arabic, Coptic and Armenian, as well as a collection of rare books on the Jewish World.

In the sixteenth century the study of the Semitic languages was still regarded as an ancillary subject for the study of the Scriptures, but before long it acquired the status of an independent separate discipline.

Josephus Justus Scaliger (1540–1609), one of the first luminaries of Leiden University, left his collection of Semitica to the University at his death in 1609. This collection includes the sole surviving manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud, Or. 4720.

Levinus Warner (c. 1618-1665), an envoy of the Dutch Republic to the Sublime Porte at Istanbul and mainly known for his much larger collection of Islamic manuscripts at Leiden University, also collected more than a hundred Hebrew manuscripts. For the greater part the Warner Hebraica are related with Karaïte Judaism. Many manuscripts in Syriac originate from the Christians on the Malabar Coast, India, and were acquired through the trade channels of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the acquisition of manuscripts came to an almost complete standstill, but at the beginning of the twentieth century the British scholar J. Rendel Harris (1852-1941) donated a collection of 57 Armenian manuscripts to Leiden University Library. In the course of the twentieth century the emphasis shifted to the acquisition of Ethiopian manuscripts, many of them Tetraevangelia with coloured miniatures. Late in the twentieth century an interesting collection of several hundred wooden sticks with inscriptions in Old South Arabic was given on permanent loan by Stichting Oosters Instituut, Leiden.

Rare printed books were acquired according to a much more regular pattern than manuscripts. For instance, the Scaliger collection contains early printed books in Semitic languages, such as a Hebrew Bible printed in Brescia in 5254/1494 and an early Ethiopian Psalter, published by Joannes Potken and printed in Rome in 1513. From the late sixteenth century onwards, constant efforts were made to expand the collections with new important text editions and studies.

  • Printed books, irrespective of language or date of publication, can be accessed through the online catalogue. Romanisation is used for non-Latin script records, but currently efforts are being undertaken to create records in vernacular script. It is possible to refine your search with criteria such as year of publication, material type or language. Manuscripts are always provided with a prefix ‘Or.’ and an accession number. They are gradually being added to the online catalogue, but a constantly decreasing number remain available only through printed scholarly catalogues, usually organised according to language.
  • Digitised materials can be searched through the online catalogue and are available in Digital Collections.

For a growing number of collections in individual languages, on selected topics or originating from specific individuals, collection guides are available, with further information on the contents, the available printed catalogues or other resources, and access.

Languages and Themes:
Armenian Manuscripts
Ethiopic Manuscripts
Hebrew Manuscripts and Early Printed Books
Karaïtica
KNAW Permanent Loan Collection of Oriental Manuscripts
Syriac Manuscripts

Individual Scholars and Collectors:
Scaliger, Joseph Justus (1540-1609)
Schultens Family (18th century)
Warner, Levinus (c.1618-1665)

The Special Collections Department of Leiden University Libraries organises regular exhibitions for a general audience in the central University Library at Witte Singel 27, Leiden. Frequent loans are made to other exhibitions in the Netherlands or abroad.

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