From Samarkhand to St. Petersburg: Journey of the Osman's Koran

Dzhafar Ponchayev (left), Imam Khatib of the mosque, and Osman Brundukov looking at a copy of the Osman's Koran (the original is kept in a special room at the Barak Khan Madrasa in Tashkent). The Cathedral Mosque in Leningrad.

Dzhafar Ponchayev (left), Imam Khatib of the mosque, and Osman Brundukov looking at a copy of the Osman's Koran (the original is kept in a special room at the Barak Khan Madrasa in Tashkent). The Cathedral Mosque in Leningrad.

Alexey Varfolomeev/RIA Novosti
The fragments of the Osman's Koran (also known as the Uthman Quran) from the 7th century, stored at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St. Petersburg, consist of 81 sheets. Historian Efim Rezvan talks about how the Koran came to St. Petersburg, and about how researchers managed to find 16 additional sheets of these writings in Uzbekistan.

The four most ancient copies of the Koran are kept in Istanbul, Tashkent, Cairo and London. Each of them bears the traces of the blood of the Caliph Osman, a companion of Prophet Muhammad, and the third person to rule over the Muslim community. It was on his orders that copies of the Koran were then sent to major cities conquered by Muslim armies. The Caliph kept one copy at his home, and in 656, when conspirators broke into his house they found him reading it. The blood of the stabbed Caliph dripped onto the pages of the manuscript.

Fragments of the Osman's Koran are stored in the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St. Petersburg. The manuscript had an interesting journey to Russia. In the fall of 1936, the Institute of Oriental Studies in Leningrad was approached by an elderly woman, who offered to sell them some loose sheets of the Koran. Attempts by academician Ignatius Yulianovich Krachkovsky to learn from her about the origins of these sheets were fruitless, as the visitor was apparently reluctant to discuss this topic. On the back of one of the books she had brought in, Krachkovsky noticed a combination of letters “I.N.”, and right away understood that the Koran had belonged to Irenaeus (Selim) Nofal (1828-1902), a Russian diplomat of Lebanese descent.

The scientist immediately understood that this was one of the oldest copies of the Koran. A brief description about it was written, but at that time, and afterwards, no one bothered to examine it in more detail. In 1998, I published an article devoted to this manuscript. That is when things started to get interesting. A French colleague, having read the article, told me that in the mausoleum of the mountain village of Katta Langar in Uzbekistan, there were 12 more sheets, similar to the St. Petersburg copy. It turned out that this manuscript came to St. Petersburg not from Arabia, but from Central Asia.

A copy of the Osman's Koran (the original is kept in a special room at the Barak Khan Madrasa in Tashkent) in the Cathedral Mosque in Leningrad, USSR, 1981. Source: RIA Novosti

In December 1999, with the help of French and Uzbek colleagues, I was able to travel to Katta Langar, located a hundred kilometers south of Samarkand. A five-minute drive from Katta Langar, there is an Arab village, whose inhabitants are native Arabs, who have to this day preserved their native language. The mosque and the tombs of the Sufi sheikhs of Ishkiyya Brotherhood in Katta Langar – are true masterpieces of Islamic architecture. However, I did not know all this that December morning when our expedition was travelling from Tashkent.

This is what I wrote in my diary... “The road here takes a steep turn uphill. We go over the pass and descend into a plain, leaving behind on our right the cupola of Samarkand, gleaming in the misty sunlight.

We come to the first houses, standing in the doors are curious black-eyed women with children in their arms. An old man in a turban is riding a donkey, his feet covered inside pointed boots and galoshes almost touching the ground. We stop the car and walk up the hill to the ancient mosque. We are greeted by its imam and stately elders.

An ancient door opens. The doorway is covered with the writings of pilgrims. We are shown a chest decorated with designs, where once relics were kept. Then at last – they bring to us the precious parchments. This is undoubtedly the same old familiar handwriting, which is more than a thousand years old. I rush to photograph it, trying to catch the last rays of the setting sun.”

Later, we managed to learn that at the end of the 19th century, one-half of the Koran manuscript was found on the book market in Bukhara. At that time, a part of this manuscript was bought by Irenaeus Nofal, while three of its sheets were bought by local aristocrats. Now these are stored in the academic libraries in Tashkent and Bukhara. In 1983, an antireligious campaign was started in the republic, and the sheets stored in Katta Langar were confiscated. Only in 1993 did the believers receive back some of the confiscated materials – 12 sheets. In 2003, Uzbek Customs seized two more sheets of this manuscript as someone was trying to take them out of the country – this means that the missing parts of this manuscript are not lost, but are kept somewhere by private individuals.

It took several expeditions to Central Asia, many hours of work in the libraries and manuscript repositories in different countries, to finally trace the path that this centuries-old manuscript took to reach Katta Langar. Today, with some degree of certainty, it can be argued that this sacred manuscript was brought to the territory of modern Uzbekistan by representatives of the Arab nation during the first Arab conquests, and began its journey most likely from Oman. At the turn of 8th-9th centuries, the members of this tribe possessed the copy of this Koran in question. They had carried it through the territories of today’s Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

The twelve-century history – of this manuscript in St. Petersburg – is truly an amazing journey, inextricably linked with the fate of dynasties and states, cities, and people, with the fate of the Islamic civilization, from its origin in Arabia in the 7th century. An analysis of this manuscript, led to the disproving of a number of popular theories made by Western science, claiming that the full text of the Koran did not appear before the 9th century.

The writer is an expert on Islam and the Arab world and chief editor of the international magazine Manuscripta Orientalia. 

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