Digitisation of oriental manuscripts in Dagestan

Makhachkala, Madrid, Dubai 2016-2018

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Manuscripts on the shelves at the IHAE archive in 2016

Dr Bassam Daghestani from the Juma al Majid Centre and Dr Shamil Shikhaliev from the IHAE studying a manuscript in 2016

Dr Makhach Musaev, Director of the IHAE, showing one of the oldest Korans in the collection

A unique manuscript copy of the Rayhan al-haqaiq (Truths of basilicum and the subtleties of the garden) an encyclopaedia of Sufi terminology composed by Aby Bakr al-Darbandi (d. 1145)

An illuminated manuscript at the IHAE

An illuminated manuscript in the IHAE collection

Dagestan's mountainous terrain is home to many private manuscript collections

Factum Foundation is collaborating with the Ziyavudin Magomedov PERI Charitable Foundation (Moscow, Makhachkala), the Juma al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage (Dubai), and the Insititue of History, Archaeology and Ethnography (IHAE) in Makhachkala, on an ambitious project to record and conserve the archive of oriental manuscripts belonging to the IHAE. The work is based on a model for sustainable cultural preservation that Factum Foundation is currently developing in Egypt, one that revolves around training local operators, technology and equipment transfer, as well as guidance in archiving, dissemination, and in the application of the data for preservation and conservation. One of the most visible outcomes of the project will be a digital archive of the manuscript collection accessible to scholars around the world.

The Republic of Dagestan, in the Russian northern Caucasus, is home to dozens of ethnic groups and over thirty languages are spoken within its borders. Its rich culture has been shaped by a position at the crossing point of the Roman, Sasanian, Arabian, Ottoman and Russian empires; the religions adopted in the region have included Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Dagestan’s mountainous terrain encouraged, amongst other things, an individualisation of religious practice: different forms of paganism and mysticism are still common in the more isolated communities. The birth of nationalism alongside the Islamic cultural revival in the 19th century brought about a period of immense richness in Dagestani literature and poetry. The cultural and religious life of Dagestan stagnated under the Soviet Union and it was in this period that many manuscripts belonging to private collections, including those in mosques and madrasas, were lost or destroyed.

Nevertheless, it was in the second half of the 20th century that the IHAE archive was established in Makhachkala, a result of the work carried out by a number of Dagestani orientalists, in particular by the scholar and historian Magomed-Said Saidov. Today, the IHAE collection holds over 3200 manuscripts from the 11th-20th centuries. The manuscripts are mostly in Arabic, but Persian and the Turkic languages of the Caucasus are also represented. It also contains over 5000 letters from the 17th-20th centuries – a period of tremendous importance in the history of Russia and of the Caucasus – as well as approximately 2300 printed books and several hundred photographs. The manuscripts in the archive cover a variety of subjects, including Arabic grammar and lexicography, logic, the history of the Caucasus, literature and poetry, ethics, astronomy, philosophy, and Islamic law. There are moreover religious texts, including Korans, tafsirs and hadiths, as well as a number of works on Sufism. The archive may also hold mportant accounts or records of the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain.

In addition to the main archive in Makhachkala, there are many private collections of manuscripts in the Dagestan. Scholars at the IHAE estimate that these could hold over 30,000 manuscripts. In later stages of the project, trained teams will be sent to digitise and record their condition. The study of this deep repository of information on the northern Caucasus should lead to a deepened understanding of this remarkable region, becoming in the process - we hope - a source of religious and cultural tolerance.

Progress 2016-2017

Factum Foundation Manuscript Scanner in production and testing at Factum, Madrid in 2016

Training in scanner operation at the IHAE, March 2017

Testing the scanner at the IHAE, March 2017

First results from the scanner at the IHAE

In the process of installing the scanner at the IHAE, March 2017

Dr Makhach Musaev, director of the IHAE, presenting the scanner in Makhachkala to local journalists, March 2017

Photographic Manuscript Scanner
In 2016, Factum Foundation designed and produced a photographic manuscript scanner for the IHAE. The scanner comprises two Canon 5DSR cameras that photograph two pages simultaneously; a system of methacrylate plates allows the user to gently press down the pages of the manuscript to achieve maximum definition in the images; and an adaptable book tray that makes it possible to record manuscripts of dfferent shapes and sizes. The custom-made scanning application ManuCapture assigns metadata tags to the images for archiving purposes. The scanner was installed at the IHAE by Factum engineer Enrique Esteban over a period of 10 days in March 2017. The trip to Dagestan was used to modify a number of features to accommodate certain needs of the IHAE, and more importantly, to train the scanner operators in Makhachkala in its use. On-site training was supplemented by online sessions in the months following the trip. The scanner was fully operational by May 2017 and from May-December 2017 operators at the IHAE scanned over 100,000 manuscript pages at 800 dpi.

In the image slider below are a number of pages recorded with the Photographic Manuscript Scanner. They are from an interesting Dagestani manuscript in the IHAE collection, the Al-Qawl al-sadid fi jawab risala Sa'id, which can be translated as "A sensible speech in reply to Said's composition". Dr Shamil Shikhaliev, an expert in oriental manuscripts at the IHAE, explains that it was written in response to the Dagestani scholar Sayid al-Arakani, who allowed Muslims to drink the local fermented barley drink "Buza". Inhabitants from the village of Zerani requested a clarification on this point from the scholar Jamaluddin Kazikumukhsky, who replied that since fermented barley juice is alcoholic and therefore intoxicating, Muslims should not be allowed to drink it. This kind of information on local Dagestani custom and scholarship has rarely been available to international or even Russian scholars. Thanks to this project, the IHAE archive and its contents will become known to a new generation of academics.

Pastedown on board from the Al-Qawl al-sadid fi jawab risala Sa'id © IHAE

Zooming in to the pasted leaf on the inner side of the front board © IHAE

Zooming in to the pasted leaf on the inner side of the front board © IHAE

When there are loose pages in a manuscript, they are photographed front and back in sequence as originally found © IHAE

A page from the al-Qawl al-sadid fi jawab risala Sa'id with details in red ink © IHAE

Zooming in to the same page © IHAE

Zooming further into the same page - note how it is possible to quite clearly see the fibres in the paper © IHAE

A page with details in green and red ink from the al-Qawl al-sadid fi jawab risala Sa'id © IHAE

Zooming into the same page to more clearly see the red and green ink detail © IHAE

Digital Archive
Factum Foundation has also produced custom software for a digital archive to house images produced by the Photographic Manuscript Scanner and integrate data produced by other systems at the IHAE. At its most basic, the digital archive comprises a set of tools for post-processing raw image files in preparation for virtual publication. The images are then stored in raw as well as library-standard high-definition TIFF and JPEG formats. The archive includes an easy-to-use database that stores various types of information and standard metadata about each recorded manuscript. Descriptive metadata tags – for example manuscript, author and copyist names and date and location of copy – can be edited within the database and used to search for a particular manuscript. The design of the web-based digital archive application is entirely based on accessibility and flexibility. Input from the IHAE has been critical in this respect, with many of the features of the system designed specifically for their needs. The entire system, including the digital archive, has been designed to work with different book scanners ensuring compatibility through normalised data flows.

Both scanner and recording system work within the bounds of the ReACH declaration prepared by the V&A and the Peri Foundation (December 2017).

Manuscript conservation at the IHAE, 2017

Manuscript conservation at the IHAE, 2017

Physical Conservation
In 2015, the artist Rachid Koraichi introduced Factum Foundation to Bassam Dagestani, an expert in oriental manuscript restoration and conservation from the Juma al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage. The initiative to restore and preserve the physical archive at IHAE was then undertaken by the Juma al Majid Centre and its specialists in manuscript conservation. The IHAE refurbished two rooms in its building complex to house the conservation centre and these were fitted with the latest technology used in paper restoration by the Juma al Majid Centre, which sent the equipment to Makhachkala from Dubai. The Juma al Majid Centre was also responsible for training of two young Dagestani women, who travelled to Dubai to learn the basic techniques of manuscript conservation. As they work on the archive at the IHAE, their initial training will be complemented by regular visits from Bassam Dagestani and Juma al Majid restorers.

Into 2018

At the start of 2018, the project with the IHAE begins to achieve visible results, but there is much that remains to be done. Factum Foundation is currently working on a new, portable manuscript scanner that operators at the IHAE will use to record manuscripts in private collections around Dagestan. The digital archive will be fully fledged in coming months, and we will be carrying out online training sessions for its users. In the near future, the results of this international collaboration will be published so that this collection can finally reach a diverse community of scholars.


Read more about Factum Foundation's Photographic Manuscript Scanner.
Find out about the important work of the Peri Foundation here.
Visit the website of the Juma Al Majid Centre.

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