Getting Al-Makin online

I received an interesting email this morning:

Arabic manuscript of Elmacin’s history

Dear Sir,

My search for Elmacin led me to your most interesting blog, namely to this post.

I am working on a translation of Edward William Lane’s Description of Egypt [into Arabic], and he quotes Elmacin. I’ll of course need to use Elmacin’s Arabic original instead of translating back which as you can see is not a preferable option.

Would please share with me any digitized versions you may have?

It is extremely frustrating to decline such requests.  But of course the PDF’s of manuscripts that I have are all supposedly copyright of this library or that, and I can’t give them away to all and sundry, much as I would like to.

What we need, perhaps, is to create an electronic text that can be freely available.  Does anyone have any ideas of how we might get one of these manuscripts transcribed?


From my diary

It’s all a bit boring here at the moment.  I can’t pay any attention to antiquity because of the pressure of other dull but necessary things.  The days are short, the evenings dark, and all that jazz.

I don’t know how interesting people find the details of producing the Eusebius volume.  All the proof corrections are in, and I now need to spend some serious time processing them into the PDF so they can be sent to the typesetter. 

The bureaucracy with getting an “account” set up at print-on-demand firm Lightning Source grinds on — amusingly they demand an annual fee to do business with you, but I don’t think there is more for me to do.  But ad-hoc printing is not their thing.  I’ve had to do the proof copies via Lulu.

The cover design that I want is now in my mind, and will consist of a dark green cloth covered hardback with gold lettering; author, title, and, lower down, publisher logo.  The logo design people, Add Design of Leiston, have sent me some possible logos today, and they all look good and possible.  I’ve not told them yet, but the chances are good that they will be doing the cover setup and the website as well.

I’ve decided that the Syriac text needs to be reset in a larger font — it’s just too tiny as it stands, and I think this is partly the fault of the Meltho fonts themselves, which seem smaller than usual. 

On a different note someone asked me if I had a PDF of a manuscript of al-Makin.  I hunted around last night and found that I did.  But not enough time to do anything about it.


Serious excitement – copies of British Library Arabic manuscripts for less than $1?

In the NASCAS forum a poster mentioned:

Speaking of manuscripts, friends, I wanted to let you know that the Bibliothica Alexandrina has the WHOLE Arabic collection of manuscripts held at the British Library. One can obtain a digital copy for only 5 (yes five) Egyptian Pounds, i.e., 90 US cents!

Now this is very, very exciting news.  And I have an idea how this might be so.  I believe some Arab princeling paid for all the Arabic mss in UK libraries to be photographed for microfiche.  But I have never known where to access this material.  Perhaps this is the source of this.

I’ve enquired of the poster how I can get these.  I have written before that there is a manuscript of the 13th century Arabic Christian historian al-Makin (BL or.  7564) which I want.  Indeed I even ordered a microfilm copy from the BL; who sent me, at a huge price, just the second half!

If the report is true, this is very good news.  It might apply to other libraries than the BL, such as the Bodleian.  Today I also heard that the Bodleian tried to screw a scholar from Leiden who wanted a photocopy of a dissertation, and demanded 150 GBP (around $220) for a photocopy.  This hateful monopoly must be overthrown; no scholarship can happen while access to the primary texts is subject to blackmail of this kind.

Let us hope and pray this is so, and that a torrent of copies is about to be unleashed on the scholarly world!


State of the al-Makin project

Back 1971 Shlomo Pines published a strange version of the so-called Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, where Josephus mentions Christ.   This came from the 10th century Arabic Christian writer Agapius, whose history I have translated and placed online.  But in fact the sole manuscript of part 2 of Agapius, which refers to Josephus, does NOT contain the text that Pines published.  This text is a reconstruction, using portions of text from the 13th century Arabic Christian historian al-Makin or Elmacinus, also known as ibn Amid.  Pines believed that these preserved portions of the text of Agapius lost in translation.

There are five big Arabic Christian histories; Agapius, Eutychius, Bar Hebraeus, al-Makin, and one which I can never remember [Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki].  But no edition or translation exists of al-Makin.  The second half — from the start of the Moslem period — was published and translated into Latin back in the 17th century.  The end portion of the chronicle, which deals with Saladin and his dynasty, was not present in the manuscript used then, but has been published recently with French translation.

An email this morning asked me the state of this project.  I’m not actively progressing it.  But I have obtained reproductions of two manuscripts, and the second half of a third.  I have a partial list of chapters of the first part from one of them.  And I have three translators, all of whom would be competent to work on the text.

As with so much in this life, all we need is money.  Maybe next year, when the downturn eases.


Searching for books; Origen, Agapius, and the Didache in Shenouda.

My trip to the University Library at Cambridge was successful, and they did let me in. I was able to get photocopies of the Baehrens GCS edition of Origen’s Homilies on Ezechiel.  Mind you, it cost 15c per page, which made it costly and prevented me from copying the whole volume.  I wish someone with borrowing privileges would scan all these early GCS editions — they’re all out of copyright.

I also took a look at the CSCO edition of Agapius, by L. Cheikho, from 1912.  I’m not all that impressed by this; if it is using al-Makin to supplement the text then it doesn’t really say so.  The apparatus seemed rather feeble to me.  It does seem to me that a modern critical edition of this text is required.  Modern technology such as multi-spectral imaging should allow the material that was illegible in those days to be read with relative ease.

Some time ago I discussed the Arabic life of the 4th century Coptic churchman Shenouda.  This is of interest because it contains, improbably, a version of the Didache.  It was printed with a French translation in several versions by Amelineau, over a century ago.  Unfortunately all of these are offline.  CUL did have the Vie de Schnoudi volume, but had consigned it to the dungeon which is the “rare books” department.  This means that you can’t photocopy it, which makes getting a copy difficult and costly.  However the version printed in the Monuments pour servir a l’histoire de l’Egypte…, t. IV, in 2 vols, was accessible and could be copied.  The text is found on pp. 289-478; which means photocopying over 150 pages, one page at a time.  However the format is Arabic at the top, French at the bottom, and there isn’t actually that much text on each page; less than in the Patrologia Orientalis editions. 

I would have photocopied this, but a call on my mobile cut short my visit, to attend to family business.  I’ll get a copy of this another day.

Wish it didn’t cost so much, tho.



Vatican ms orders received

On May 19th I ordered reproductions of two manuscripts of the unpublished Arabic Christian historian al-Makin from the Vatican.  I didn’t receive any acknowledgement, so wasn’t expecting much.  Anyhow a UPS man arrived a few minutes ago, bearing a parcel.  So it took just under 7 weeks to get, from posting the order to now.  That’s really not too bad.

Less good is the payment arrangements.  They’ve sent me an invoice, which has an international bank account number (IBAN) and a SWIFT number on it, so I can do a bank-to-bank transfer.  These are marvellously expensive things to do from the UK (because the banks rip you off).  There seems no facility to do a credit card payment.

The images arrived as two PDF’s  — which is good.  The images are scanned from black-and-white (not even monochrome) microfilm — which is terrible.   The consumer really should be protected from this rip-off racket of selling substandard images at very premium prices.  The price for the two mss. was 215 euros; the charge for postage and packing was 15 euros; quite a bit for 43Mb of data, which could perfectly well have been made available for download. 

Of course the library is profiteering pretty heavily here.  The microfilms already existed, so to produce these PDF’s required them to load them in a microfilm scanner, hit “scan”, and go and have a coffee.  200 euros for a trivial bit of work; nice if you can get it, eh?

I was amused to find a “copyright” notice included.  This is almost certainly fraudulent, as ever; these images cannot be considered creative works of art!  Only in the UK could this even possibly be in copyright, because of the foolish wording of the law in this country.

Still, the failings of this service are historic and traditional; the advantages of it are all new, and I think we may expect radical improvements in service.  Everyone will expect better quality, and we may hope to get it.

UPDATE: I discovered by chance that HSBC customers can do their own international transfers from their online system, at a price of 9 GBP; far cheaper than Lloyds TSB at 15 GBP, etc.  So that’s the way to do it, if you have such an account.


Ordering from the Vatican library

I’ve never ordered anything from the Vatican library, so this note is for those who have thought about it but never got around to it.

Today I’ve downloaded the PDF order form from here and posted it off, with an order for PDF’s of microfilms (! — all I can afford) of two Vatican mss. of the unpublished history of the Arabic Christian writer Al-Makin.

I’ve ordered a copy of Ms. Vatican Arab 169 (which I mentioned here when discussing complete copies), and, for good measure, a copy of Ms. Vatican Arab 168 (which from this post contains the first half).  I am nervous, tho, that the description in Graf says that the former is folios 1-194r; i.e. around 400 pages, which doesn’t look long enough to me to contain the complete work.  Let’s hope I’m wrong.

The order form is simple and obvious — one of the better examples I’ve seen — and in English.  They intend to do it online, which they indeed should, but the website isn’t quite ready. 

Prices are listed on the form, and are 50 euros for 100 pages, then 20 euros for each chunk of 100 pages thereafter.   Payment is on delivery, apparently; I hope they take credit cards!

I will keep you posted on how this goes, and how easy they are to deal with.


Bibliotheque National Francais – more bloodsucking

Very angry this morning with the BNF.   They’ve just demanded $30 per page for a copy of two manuscripts. 

People will recall that I ordered reproductions of these two mss from them.  They charged me $400 — a huge, bloodsucking sum, enough to win them the March 2009 Bloodsucker award.  What arrived was some incredibly cheap and nasty scans of a microfilm!!! (I nearly typed “scams” instead of “scans” – maybe I was right first time!)  Worse, the results were actually unusable, because the ends of the lines were blacked out.

Their reaction was to offer me a refund!  They don’t seem to grasp that what scholars need is copies.  As far as they are concerned, they’re just selling products.

I’ve written them a courteous but angry email.  What all this means is that I cannot obtain a reproduction of those mss.   I’m trying to get work done on al-Makin, and simply can’t obtain the manuscripts to do so!

Still, with initiatives like the Virtual Manuscript Room, soon we will all look back at this exhibition of irresponsible greed and shake our heads.


Manuscripts of the history of al-Makin

The 13th century Arabic Christian chronicle of George Al-Makin or Ibn Amid has never been published in full, or translated into any other language.  However it contains a version of the so-called Testimonium Flavianum, based on that in Agapius.  Some access to this text is desirable, therefore.  It’s a big text, in two halves.  The first need is to get hold of copies of manuscripts.

This has drawn my attention before.  I ended up ordering copies from a Paris manuscript, which cost a lot and turned out to be wretchedly poor quality; too poor to be usable.  I’ve gone back to them, and we’ll see if they will send me something useful.

In the meantime a scholarly friend has been going through this, listing the sections and how long they are, so that we can get an idea of contents.  The poor state of the Paris microfilm has become very apparent during this process.

According to Georg Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, vol. 2, p. 349, the following manuscripts exist of the first half:

  • Vatican arab. 168 (16th c.).  215 folios.
  • Borg. ar. 232 (in Karshuni, 1659 AD)
  • Paris ar. 294 (14th century) – of which I received so poor a copy at so very high a price
  • Paris ar. 4524 (1672 AD; “sehr fehlerhaft”)
  • Paris ar. 4729 (19th century). 176 folios.
  • Bodleian ar.683 (Pococke 312 = DCLXXXIII).  170 folios.  AD 1591.  Catalogued here.
  • Bodleian ar.773.
  • Bodleian ar.789.
  • Gotha ar. 1557 (karshuni, 1661 AD)
  • Breslau, Stadtbibliothek ar. 18 (ca. 1270 AD) – Graf leaves it unclear whether this is merely extracts of two lives.
  • Munich ar. 376, by the same copyist as the Oxford ms.
  • Vienna or. 884.
  • St. Petersburg or. 112 (1672)
  • Cairo 572 (1685)
  • Coptic patriarchate 1103, 1 (1876)
  • Sarfeh syr. 16/4 (karshuni)
  • Sbath 1938 (13th century) but only pp. 155-168 so is an extract.

Manuscripts exist of the second half, as does a printed text, Thomas Erpenius Historia Saracenica (1625) with Latin translation.

  • Paris ar. 295 (1854) breaks off at 1023 AD – I got a somewhat better microfilm of this.
  • British Library ar. 282, I (17th century)
  • Bodleian ar. (Uri) 715, 735.
  • Leiden or. 758
  • Leipzig university or. 643 (17th century), containing fragments on 1123-1259 AD.
  • Beirut 6 and 7 (18th century)
  • St. Petersburg As. Mus. ar. 161 (but probably copied from Erpenius, as several other copies are)

I need to have another go at getting manuscript copies from the Vatican. Last time my email was ignored.  I don’t know that the Bodleian has changed its policy of charging the customer vast prices for full-colour images, but only supplying him low-grade monochrome derivatives.  Being poor, such a policy amounts to prohibiting access.  But it may be possible to obtain images from some of the other institutions.

Isn’t it odd, what a struggle it is to just obtain access?

UPDATE (16th Dec. 2013).  I have added some notes from Martino Diez, “Les antiquities greco-romaines entre al-Makin ibn al-`Amid et ibn Khaldun”, Studia Graeco-Arabica, 3, (2013) 121-140.


The March 2009 Bloodsucker award winner — the Bibliothèque Nationale Français

In early January I ordered images from the Bibliothèque Nationale Français of a manuscript of the unpublished 13th century Arabic Christian historian, al-Makin.  Today I received a CDROM containing two PDF’s.   The PDF’s were simply scans of a low-grade black-and-white microfilm, of about the same quality as a Google books scan.  One was 40Mb, the other 10Mb.  Together they totalled 640 images.  I also received my credit card bill; these two files cost me $400.

My feelings may be imagined.  At such prices, obtaining several manuscripts is impossible.  And… for that obscene price, could they not have photographed the things in colour?  The black and white images, of course, don’t scale.  The rubrics are lost in the text.  Quite how I print these things I do not know.

Oh yes.  Want a copy?  Well, they sent me a legal notice saying I can’t give you one.  You have to pay them again, if you want to see them.  These, remember, are publicly owned manuscripts!

This is disgusting.  So, with all these reasons in m ind, I award the Bibliothèque Nationale Français the second Bloodsucker award

I will award it, ad hoc, to institutions in receipt of state funding which in order to make money violate their primary directive; to make books available and promote learning.

Well done, chaps.  May you all rot in the hell reserved for those who knowingly obstruct the progress of learning.

My previous award was to the John Rylands Library in 2008, also for making it impossibly expensive to obtain a usable copy of a manuscript of al-Makin.

Postscript: I have now discovered that the photographs are of two-page spreads.  Most of the images have a large black band down the centre of the opening, wide enough to obscure the text on the inner margins.  Guess what?  Being black on white, this means that the ends of the words are all unreadable.  And this, for $400.  I have been forced to write back and point this out.  I may have to involve VISA, to recover money for substandard merchandise.  What’s the betting that they simply try to get me to pay yet more money?

UPDATE 6th March 2009: No reply from the BNF.  I’ve now written again and threatened (politely) to go to VISA for a refund.