The National Library of Russia (former Imperial Public Library) in St.-Petersburg houses an extensive and valuable collection of Oriental manuscripts originating mostly from the Near East. One of the library's treasures is the collection of Koran fragments written in so-called "Kufi" script. This collection was assembled by the French orientalist J.-J. Marcel, and acquired by the library in 1864 from his heirs due to the efforts of the Russian orientalist Nicholas Khanykoff who then lived in Paris.

Jean Joseph Marcel (1776-1854) was among the participants of Napoleon's war expedition in Egypt. In 1798-1801 he was the head of Imprimerie Nationale in Alexandria and Cairo. During these years he became educated in the Arabic language and history to the extent, which later allowed him to compile the Arabic-French dictionary and write interesting articles on the history of Egypt. At the same time he was collecting antiquities. Unfortunately of his extensive collection, of which only manuscript part contained 3000 items, solely the 8-11th centuries "Kufi" Koran fragments have survived as an entity. He collected most of these fragments in the oldest mosque in Cairo, built by 'Amr b. al-'As in 643.


Qur'an fragment

Qur'an fragment from the J.-J. Marcel collection. Sura 2:173 (10th century, 228 ? 325 mm
(National Library of Russia, Marcel 64, fol. 4 v.)


The Library acquired the collection together with the hand-list made by Victor Langlois. This hand-list consisted of three parts and contained descriptions of 119 items (the third part consisted of one 15th century Koran volume and personal papers of Marcel). Later some of the items were divided into separate fragments, and nowadays the total number of items in Marcel collection is 132, of them 129 - "Kufi" fragments (2000 folios).

Our project is a complex one and involves two main types of activities. First, activities aimed at the conservation of the manuscripts, including:
a. improvement of the conservation conditions (providing the manuscripts with the new covers made of acid-free paper, moving the manuscripts into a special safe storage);
b. conservation and restoration works on some of the items;
c. making digital copies of the first pages and illuminated pages of every item;
d. microfilming the entire collection.

Second, activities aimed at the creation of the electronic catalogue of the collection. The basis of the catalogue is the traditional description of the fragments made according to the system, proposed by F. Déroche in his catalogues: "Les manuscrits du Coran : Aux origines de la calligraphie coranique" [Bibliothèque - Nationale, Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, 2e partie, Manuscrits musulmans, I/1], Paris, 1983; "The Abbasid tradition, Qur'ans of the 8th to the 10th centuries" [The Nasser D. Khalili collection of Islamic art, I], London, 1992. However two more points were added to this system: incipits and explicits of the fragments and the bigger to smaller dimensions ratio of the manuscript (folio and text field).

This data will be registered in the information retrieval system "Depository" which has been created for the electronic catalogue of the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Russia. This system comprises the detailed structure of the fields and basic references, its main fields corresponding with the standard format accepted by the Library, which allows to convert the data into modern international standards. The system had been tested on the material of Slavonic manuscripts. To achieve the aims of our project certain adaptations were made in the database; attributive features of the hand-written Korans were determined; new blocks of fields were added according to the specific of the material; new terminology and graphic (for the description of the elements of illumination) references formed and tested. Four print-out formats of the description will be available in the electronic catalogue: 1) brief inventory record; 2) full analytic description; 3) full analytic description with commentaries; 4) check format showing the information as it is registered in the fields of the database.

The catalogue will be prefaced with the articles about the history of the Marcel collection, principles of the manuscripts description and the directions for the users of the catalogue.

The main aim of the project is preparation of the text and images for the publication of a catalogue in the form of a book and/or CD-ROM, which may be regarded as the first issue of the catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the National library of Russia collections.

Olga Vasilyeva
Valery Polosin
Ekaterina Krushelnitskaya