Since its creation in 1753, the British Library – formerly the Library of the British Museum – has amassed more than 170 million collection items. A small portion of these are in Uzbek or Chagatai, or related to the territory of the contemporary Republic of Uzbekistan. Despite their small number, the 50-odd Turkic manuscripts from Central Asia and 1650 or so Uzbek and Chagatai publications form an invaluable resource for those seeking to discover the rich cultural, political, and economic legacies of Uzbekistan. More than a few of these works are world-class treasures, and are shared with visitors and researchers alike.
Among the earliest, and most noteworthy, manuscripts from the region is the Nuṣratnāmah, also known as the Tavārīkh-i Guzīdah. This exquisite item, copied in 970 AH (1563 AD1), is a history of Genghis Khan and his descendants down to the Shaybanid Dynasty. The work is complemented by 16 large illustrations narrating scenes that incorporate some of the most notable rulers from this lineage. Apart from the beauty of the compositions, these paintings are invaluable for the information they provide us about the lives, costumes, and customs of the rulers of Central Asia. When combined with the content of the Nuṣratnāmah, they shed considerable light on the history of statehood and governance in the lands that would become Uzbekistan.
The British Library’s holdings, however, are more just sources of knowledge about the history and politics of the region. With more than 40 manuscripts of his poetry and prose, the Library’s collection of Navoiy works is unparalleled in the United Kingdom. Widely recognized as a paragon of Chagatai literary production, Alisher Navoiy’s creations were and continue to be admired and emulated across the Turkic World, and beyond. Although not all of the manuscripts in the Library’s care originate from the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan, they all speak to the power of Navoiy’s words to inspire and delight. Some also foreground the consideration and adoration with which his oeuvre was regarded. A small volume from Herat, for example, contains wonderful examples of decoupage in a dizzying array of bright colours, alongside breathtaking calligraphy and a lonesome line drawing of a seated man. Similarly, an incomplete volume of his Gharā’ib al-ṣighār, produced in Istanbul in 1520 AD, complements Navoiy’s immortal verses with delicate and detailed paintings from the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.
Manuscripts, of course, are not the sole component of the Library’s Uzbek and Chagatai holdings. The collections include works from contemporary Uzbekistan that go back to the last two decades of the 19th century. Some are quite rare, including a lithographed copy of the Dīvān-i Mashrab, and a late 19th-century Russian-Sart phrasebook. The British Museum and British Library’s excellent relations with Soviet and Uzbek institutions ensured that these holdings continued to grow throughout the 20th century. From Arabic- and Latin-script magazines produced in the 1920s, to literature and social science research from the post-World War II era, the Library’s holdings of Uzbek materials are now the largest and most comprehensive in Great Britain. They form a crucial component of scholarly endeavours to understand better the history and culture of the Uzbek nation.
Today, the British Library continues to build its Uzbek and Chagatai holdings in concert with partners in Uzbekistan and around the world. In this way, we play a small but important part in strengthening the bonds between our two countries.
A.D. stands for Anno Domini, which means “In the year of our Lord.” The Hijri Calendar has years marked by A.H., which stands for Anno Hegirae, “In the Year of the Hijra.” The hegira took place in A.H. 1. The Hijri Calendar is the official calendar in many predominantly Muslim countries.
text by Dr. Michael Erdman,
Curator, British Library