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Culture

Digitization sheds light on 500-year-old Koran

One of the world's most important and largest Korans is being digitized and made accessible to Islamic scholars everywhere, after being hidden away in a Manchester library for more than a century.

Kansuh al-Ghuri Koran

Islamic scholars everywhere will be able to study the Koran's exquisite calligraphy

Due to its age and size, the book is too fragile to be moved around or studied in detail. But now it is being digitized by a photographer, and will soon be available on the Internet.

The so-called Koran of Kansuh al-Ghuri is the size of a large flat screen TV, measuring nearly one meter across (3.3 feet) and weighing 52 kilos (115 pounds). Islamic scholars have called it one of the most magnificent copies of the Koran in existence.

Challenging process

The over 500-year-old manuscript has been stored at Manchester's John Rylands Library since 1901 and few have had the chance to study it in detail because of its fragility. The digitization of the book has been carried out by the library's photographer James Robinson, who has taken high-resolution photographs of each of its nearly 1,000 pages in a process he called both rewarding and challenging.

"We do have a lot of very beautiful manuscripts in the library, but I've got to say this is one of the most beautiful, especially due to its large size - it's quite jaw-dropping," Robinson told Deutsche Welle.

Kansuh al-Ghuri Koran

The Kansuh al-Ghuri Koran is thought to be more than five centuries old

"Some of these pages are quite wrinkled, but we've done our best with the lighting to get rid of that as much as we can," he added. "The text is all totally legible and the image is still flat, so it's readable when it's online."

When the digital copy of the Koran is published online, scholars and others will have full access to it from anywhere in the world.

Written in gold

The Koran bears the seal of Sultan Kansuh al-Ghuri, the last of Egypt's Mamluk sultans, who reigned until 1516. The Mamluk sultanate famously defeated the Mongols and fought the Crusaders during its nearly 300 years of power.

So far, it has not been possible to prove that Sultan Kansuh al-Ghuri himself commissioned the Koran, but scholars believe someone of his standing and power must have been behind such a lavish presentation of the holy text.

"It's not just black and white, it's ornamented - the first three pages are written in gold. It's really exquisite and represents one of the finest examples of Koranic calligraphy," said Paul Tate, the Middle Eastern Studies librarian at the John Rylands Library.

"It's of great value to researchers studying calligraphy from this period of Islamic history. And also there are many peculiarities within the Koran itself in terms of the Arabic alphabet and different vowel systems used within the Koran," added Tate.

Even thought the book has been tucked away at the John Rylands library, Islamic scholars have long been interested in it. The project to make it accessible through digitization was funded by the Islamic Manuscript Association, a non-profit organization protecting Islamic manuscript collections.

Experts at the University of Manchester photograph the Kansuh al-Ghuri Koran

Specialists adjusted the lighting to make sure each page is readable in its digitized form

Turning the page

Carol Burrows, project manager for the digitization process, says modern page-flip technology will allow people to leaf through the book on a touch screen as if it were the real thing.

"It takes about three or four people to carry it, so it's very difficult to maneuver about the library. We thought this would be ideal - it's obviously a text a lot of people are interested in, so we thought if people can't see it via exhibition or in the reading room, this is an excellent way of bringing the text to people's attention," said Burrows.

The careful digitization of each page will allow scholars to study not only the text and the calligraphy. A few surprises have turned up as well, including comments written in the margins of some pages.

"We don't really have any idea who did that writing," said Paul Tate, "but it's things like this that researchers will be interested in as well."

The full Kansuh al-Ghuri Koran will be available later this year at www.library.manchester.ac.uk, but parts of it can already be studied on a blog about the ongoing digitization process, at www.gatewaytothekoran.wordpress.com.

Author: Lars Bevanger

Editor: Kate Bowen

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