Many of us can’t even track down the last person we lent our favorite novels. Evyn Kropf, on the other hand, has accomplished the seemingly impossible: she’s traced the journey of a book.
Kropf isn’t just anyone; a U-M librarian and curator of the Islamic Manuscripts Collection, she’s a key player in the acquisition, development, and digitization of University archives.
And the book isn’t just any book; it’s Islamic Manuscript 350, commissioned for production by 18th century Kashmirian deputy, Shir Jang Bahadur. Its sea-blue pages boast lines of Persian poetry, transcribed in ink against gold-plated backdrops. The book itself is just one example of a lesser-known historical connection between the University and India.
“It’s unusual to have such detailed information about the history of a manuscript,” Kropf explained. “Some information was internal to the manuscript in the form of owners’ marks...signatures and inscriptions that detail the gifting and trading of a book.”
Still, Kropf had to do a good bit of research to trace the book’s odyssey. With travels bookended by its production in Delhi and its final journey with U-M’s beloved Professor Kelsey, Isl. Ms. 350 crossed continents and outlasted empires before finally coming to rest on the shelves of Hatcher Graduate Library.
Isl. Ms. 350 was created in 1744, back when Delhi was still known as Shahjahanabad. Kropf believes the production wouldn’t have taken more than a few months, but the project required all sorts of specialized artisans, from copyists to binders to those skilled in paper-dyeing.
“Not everyone in the 18th century Indian ruling class was a bibliophile with the means and interest to commission such manuscripts,” said Kropf. “But Bahadur was, and he did.”
In fact, Bahadur had a library so big, he’d hired an inventory clerk for his collection. The name of this man—Mohammed Shahriyar—is among the owners’ marks imprinted on the book’s flyleaf.
“The Indian context is pretty rich thanks to this sort of meticulous record-keeping, so we do have that information for this class of rulers.”
The First Journey (c.1841)
After his death, several volumes of Bahadur’s collection were divided among French collectors, who also had a presence in India at the time. Still, much of his collection remained local to India. That is, until British soldier James Caulfeild—director of the East India Company—acquired some of the manuscripts while he was stationed in India.
“[Caulfeild] left India in 1841, and we can discern from the owners’ marks that the book was likely in his hands by this time,” Kropf said.
Caulfeild would travel back to London to serve his directorship. In true European book-trading style, he left a bookplate instead of a signature to mark his ownership before gifting the book to a “Prince Ickbaloodalah.”
From London to the Ottoman Empire (1851)
Kropf believes “Ickbaloodaulah” refers to a man by the name of Iqbāl al-Dawlah, claimant to the throne of Awadh in present-day Uttar Pradesh.
“Iqbāl al-Dawlah would’ve been in London at the time, appealing to the British colonial presence to help with his instatement as ruler,” she said of the book exchange between Caulfeild and al-Dawlah.
It wouldn’t be long before al-Dawlah passed the book to a prominent Ottoman statesman, whose name on the flyleaf reads, “Alee Pasha”—presumably, Mehmet Emin Âli Paşa, the Ottoman ambassador to London.
Âli Paşa took the book to Istanbul, later gifting it to his son, Mustafa Reşit. Decades later, when the Ottoman Empire began its decline, the manuscripts in Reşit’s collection landed in the hands of an Italian bookdealer named Tammaro De Marinis.
The Final Journey (1923)
The collapse of the Ottoman empire presented an opportunity for book dealers to swipe a share of the empire’s literary goldmine. Unsurprisingly, Reşit’s library was among the most coveted collections.
Since De Marinis had been commissioned by the American financier Pierpont Morgan—father of J.P. Morgan—to acquire rare books for the family’s library in New York, he was probably pretty excited to encounter a collection like Reşit’s.
“But [Pierpont] Morgan fell ill, and his son declined to make the purchase,” said Kropf. “So De Marinis was just kind of left with this collection.”
Isl. Ms. 350 likely traveled back to Italy with De Marinis before being passed to an Egyptian bookdealer in Cairo. This collector—Maurice Nahman—was well-acquainted with U-M’s Professor Francis Kelsey, for whom U-M’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology is named.
“Professor Kelsey had been amassing papyri for the University through Nahman’s collection,” Kropf continued. “When Kelsey was on an archaeological excavation in Egypt, Nahman presented him with this collection of manuscripts from Istanbul.”
Isl. Ms. 350, Professor Kelsey, and a host of other manuscripts from the Reşit collection arrived in Ann Arbor in 1924. After a 180-year adventure, the book from Delhi had finally secured its home among the 1100 volumes that comprise U-M’s Islamic Manuscript Collection—one of the foremost collections of its kind in North America.
“We see ourselves as caretakers,” Kropf said of the University’s obligation to the manuscripts. “The books represent a complex shared heritage. We strive to digitize, curate, and exhibit these collections in ways that make them accessible to the many communities that consider them significant and meaningful.”