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Layout of Arabic Manuscripts

Arabists of the University Jena take part in a new collaborative research center

Illustrated, colourful, lavishly designed - this is how we recall the magnificent calligraphies of past centuries. But is it the same for all cultures and in every place?

A new collaborative research centre (SFB), recently authorised by the German Research Foundation (DFG), will concentrate on the diversity of the manuscripts from historical and comparative points of view. The SFB 950 'Manuscript Cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe' will start in July 2011 under the auspices of the University Hamburg. Arabists of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany), who will be subsidised with about 300,000 Euro in the first four years, will also take part in the project.

In collaboration with two post-graduates the Jena arabist Prof. Dr. Tilman Seidensticker will research 'Forms and Functions of the Layout in Arabic Manuscripts on the Basis of Transcriptions of Religious Texts'. There is not only an aesthetic side to the formal design of transcriptions, which can lead to their revaluation; Prof. Seidensticker is convinced that it also has cognitive functions.

"The SFB doesn't impose an assumption on the material studied but rather uses the manuscripts as a starting point", enthuses the Jena arabist about the unbiased approach. Together with Frederike-Wiebke Daub and another graduate student who is still to be appointed, the Jena arabists deal in the coming four years with the question: Is the layout linked with the text or the time or the place?

Deliberately, the Jena researchers will neglect exquisitely crafted luxury manuscripts, but will rather concentrate on the transcriptions of daily use. Six religious texts from the 7th to the 16th century that are "on the one hand marked by diversity and on the other hand by standardisation", explains graduate student Daub, and up to two dozen transcriptions each will be analysed. The latest copies will date back to the first years of the twentieth century, as back then letterpress printing finally replaced the medium of the manuscript in the Arabic World. The geographic region the Jena team is dealing with is of vast extent - from Anatolia to the Sub-Sahara and from India to Morocco.

The arabists are researching nine layout characteristics in order to be finally able to mark the function of the layout for the everyday transcriptions. In doing so, it is not only important to find out something about the copyists and the intentions of their patrons. The SFB researchers are also facing the great task of finding a consistent terminology. Because a column in Western manuscripts and books for instance evokes different characteristics than a similar unit in an Arabic script, Prof. Seidensticker says. By the way he explains pointing out an Arabic page with two 'columns' whose lines are being read along both 'columns'. "With this the close contact with our colleagues will be helpful to create a generally accepted, standardised terminology", expects Prof. Seidensticker. What the SFB is aiming for - at the end of its running time of presumably twelve years at the latest - might then be successful: To establish a generally accepted scholarship of manuscripts as interdisciplinary research as well as the development of effectively useable tools and methods.

Contact: Prof. Dr. Tilman Seidensticker Department of Languages and Cultures of the Orient Friedrich Schiller University Jena Löbdergraben 24 a D-07743 Jena Phone.: ++49 (0)3641 944865 Email: Tilman.Seidensticker[at]uni-jena.de

idw :: 07.06.2011