by Alastair Hamilton, 2011


The Arcadian Library is unique in Europe. Its 10,000 volumes record the encounter between two cultures and show how the civilization of the Arab and Islamic worlds was appreciated in the Christian West from the earliest times to the present. This richly illustrated survey summarizes the variety of works, documents and images which the library holds in different domains.

The works of travellers – including pilgrims, missionaries, merchants, diplomats, scientists, soldiers, antiquarians, tourists and women – form an important part of the collection. Their reports reflect the impressions made on Europeans by the vast region centred on Arabia and the Levant and stretching from Spain and the Maghreb to South and Central Asia, and their publication in Europe had in turn a profound effect on western sensibilities. The section on travellers also includes unique and rare manuscripts and maps, colour-plate books, and unpublished letters from figures such as Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell.

The library also possesses numerous items of ‘Turcica’ relating to the Ottoman Empire, including a unique collection of rare pamphlets and illustrations; many important works on Arab science and medicine, and priceless early editions of translations of Arabic texts; an important selection of Qurans, both in Arabic and in various European translations; translations of the Bible into Arabic and Syriac, and material on Eastern Christianity; documents both published and unpublished on the Arabs in Spain and the influence of their tradition on early modern Spain and the rest of Europe; and numerous early grammars, dictionaries and other examples of oriental scholarship. Finally, the library has a fine collection of oriental literature which includes, besides translations from Turkish and Persian, unpublished manuscripts and splendidly illustrated copies of The Arabian Nights.

Some 300 illustrations of the finest and rarest items in the library, including four eight-page fold-outs, complement the text, while the bibliography, running to over 1,500 entries, gives an overview of many of the most important and interesting items in the library.


Introduction by Robert Jones
Chapter One. Travel
Antiquarians and archaeologists
Tourists, artists and professional travellers
Chapter Two. Turcica
Curiosity satisfied
Chapter Three. Science and Medicine
Chapter Four. Islam and Christianity
Christians in the East and Eastern Christianity
Chapter Five. Spain
Chapter Six. Oriental Scholarship and Literature
Oriental scholarship
Oriental literature

Author Information

Alastair Hamilton, former Louise Thijssen-Schoute Professor of the History of Ideas at Leiden University and Professor emeritus of the History of the Radical Reformation at the University of Amsterdam, is the Arcadian Visiting Research Professor at the School of Advanced Study, London University, Warburg Institute. He is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Review Highlights

‘Sumptuous … The Arcadian Library takes the form of a guide to the collections, not a bibliographical catalogue…Hamilton’s lucid, graceful commentary and proofing seem to belong to an age of exactitude and elegance that are luxuries beyond most of our reach today. [It] testifies to underexplored dimensions of exchange and cross-fertilization, much of them far more appreciative and therefore fruitful than the current perspective common ignorance perpetuates.’
Marina Warner in The Times Literary Supplement

‘ is good to have this record of a great private collection, along with illustrations of superb quality.’
Farzaneh Pirouz in The Art Newspaper

Sample Text

Introduction: The dedication to one of the books in the Arcadian Library has at its head an engraved vignette illustrating a library, of classical proportions, furnished with a portrait of its patron’s ancestor, with busts of famous scholars and globes defining territories explored by men-of-action. We can well imagine spending hours in such a place of learning, feeling secure in the knowledge that we may expand our intellectual horizons without fear of intrusion from the outside world. Not that a safe haven should be taken entirely for granted. Above the portal to the library a Latin inscription warns of the tension between knowledge and ignorance. ‘Knowledge has no enemy other than an ignorant man,’ it proclaims. Winning the battle, however, requires enlightened patronage. As the author goes on to elaborate in his dedication, the arts and sciences can only prosper, excel and achieve their technical best through the love, care and protection of great men.

The rich holdings of the Arcadian Library were assembled over several decades as part of a family’s interest in collecting and promoting the arts that has been sustained over many generations. The purpose of the library was simple: to represent through books the relationship and the ties that have bound European culture for so many centuries to the neighbouring Arab and Islamic world. In books issued throughout the age of European printing, and in documents and manuscripts that stretch further back in time, we witness the manifold ways in which the West has received and reacted to the cultural influences emanating from the further shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Levant and Anatolia, from lands further to the east, from the heart of Arabia, from Iran, Central and South Asia and beyond.

The story of the Arcadian Library begins with a boy, 16 years old, leaving his native land in the Levant for an education in the United States. Alone, naturally a little apprehensive, yet full of excitement at the prospect of a new life, new learning and new opportunities, his social and intellectual development, firmly rooted in the values and beliefs of his homeland and family, was unstoppable. Driving his thoughts and his career choices was the abiding memory of his grandmother, a spiritual ‘pillar’ of Sufism (Qutb al-Din), who advised that one should always live one’s life in pursuit of dynamic cultural variety. Satellite engineering in Texas presented its technical challenges, as did the study of econometrics and oil market projections at postgraduate level in London. It was, however, international banking that allowed this young man’s genius to flourish; and later in life it was by turning to literary and artistic endeavours that he has succeeded in making sense of the fragmentation of a life lived between and across different cultures. To get the best of several worlds requires great strength and character; and this resilience and passion lie at the heart of the labour of love that was to become the Arcadian Library.

This illustrated survey of the contents of the Arcadian Library has the twin purpose of providing the context not only for the rare books displayed in Arcadian exhibitions but also for the new books published in association with Oxford University Press in the series ‘Studies in the Arcadian Library’. The bibliography itemizes many of the more significant books in the library, but there is no attempt to provide a detailed analytical bibliography: important bindings and provenances, for example, will be treated in a forthcoming publication. The intention is rather to introduce readers to the contents of the library according to the six major thematic categories of its arrangement.

The most numerous section of the library consists of travel books written mainly in English and French but also in other European languages. For those who live an international peripatetic life, the challenge of acquiring an intimate familiarity with the manners and customs of the local peoples at all levels is the same now as it was then; and understanding who is who and how to behave in different circumstances is as vital to success today as it always has been. Once business is done, curiosity has to be satisfied: cities and historic sites have to be visited, the languages, the etymologies, the beliefs, the dress, the professions, the industries, the landscapes, the natural world, and, of course, the cuisine, and so forth all need discussion and evaluation. Being well-informed and well-travelled are qualities that have to be developed and refined; and the books in the Arcadian Library reflect that desire for increasing knowledge. From fifteenth-century pilgrimage accounts of the Holy Land to the desert campaign of T.E. Lawrence in the early twentieth century, travel literature provides an endless source of information and observation of hugely varying degrees of accuracy and appeal. For many collectors of Middle Eastern books and art, the point of departure is easily accessible picture books and especially the all too familiar vistas of Egypt and the Holy Land by painter David Roberts. But Roberts came late to the Arcadian Library. It was only when Beriah Botfield’s set of the hand-coloured subscribers’ edition was released from the library at Longleat House that Arcadian would consider such an acquisition.

The second subject comprises books and pamphlets about the Ottoman world, so-called Turcica, written in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin. For anyone whose parents or grandparents lived under Ottoman rule, this record of the westward advance of the Ottoman armies, along with European descriptions of the Ottoman court, evokes strong feelings. The Arcadian Library preserves certificates of indulgence granted by the Church to those who could afford to defend their lands from Ottoman incursion (and their souls from the time-wasting of purgatory); the library also holds hundreds of pamphlets bringing news of victory and defeat; and there are the many attempts to define the Ottoman state and to chronicle the lives of its rulers. An aerial view of Cairo printed in Venice in about 1549 and measuring two metres across by a metre high is of extraordinary topographical and historic interest: it chronicles the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517. The Arcadian Library and Berlin’s Museum of Prints and Drawings preserve the two surviving examples.

Third comes science and medicine, mainly in Latin. The high regard for learning that is a constant feature of the best of modern Arab society explains the special place in the Arcadian Library for the achievements of medieval Muslim scholars and the transfer of that knowledge to the West. This is also the corner of the library most coveted by historians of that legacy and its revival in print during the Renaissance. The Arcadian Library possesses many of the most important early editions of these texts as well as some remarkable medieval manuscript survivals. Aside from the surgical work of the Andalusian Abu ’l-Qasim al-Zahrawi in a Latin manuscript dated c.1300, take just two editions from Italy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine printed over a century apart: the first in Latin, printed at Padua in 1479; the second in Arabic printed at Rome in 1593. Both books are iconic.

The fourth theme is books on Islam and Christianity: here, Latin works are joined by Arabic texts, and versions of the Quran appear in vernacular languages. This section of the library concerns the two great religions of the Arabs and of Europe, Islam and Christianity, as their texts and tenets are discussed, edited and published by western scholars of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and beyond. In an age of growing polarization, this is an area of cultural history requiring great generosity of spirit and open-mindedness if it is not to be misrepresented and manipulated in the wrong hands.

The fifth subject of the library and of this book, Spain, is perhaps the most poignant for modern visitors from the Arab world who enjoy Europe and its way of life. The Arcadian Library has amassed books in European languages concerning two distinct topics: the record of the end of Arab rule and the tragic aftermath of the decline and expulsion of the Moriscos; and the mainly nineteenth-century rediscovery and depiction of the Arab legacy, especially its architecture. But more compelling even than any colour-plate book must be a remarkable twelfth-century manuscript of medical remedies. Written in Arabic by a Jewish physician for the Muslim ruler of Saragossa, its value to Christian Europe is revealed in its marginal annotations and synonyms in Latin. This is Ibn Baklarish’s Kitāb al-Musta‘īnī: the Arcadian Library possesses the earliest known copy.

The sixth section brings orientalist scholarship together with literature. The grammatical and lexical works ranged on these shelves testify to the seriousness of the long European endeavour to learn oriental languages. This scholarly effort developed in tandem with printing in oriental fonts several centuries before manuscript traditions were supplanted by printing in the East. Devoting time to such books is an acquired taste. So for more visual entertainment, we may turn instead to a bay of books filled with editions of The Arabian Nights whose illustrations have graced drawing-room and nursery tables for half a dozen generations past. The thirty rare, unillustrated Arabic manuscripts of the Nights, owned by an eighteenth-century Englishman, Samuel Bosanquet, and now in the Arcadian Library, testify to the extraordinary enthusiasm for this literature in the West that is not always shared in the East.

A bookman is bound to say it, but is it not true that a legacy of antiquarian books represents the intellectual achievement of an age more eloquently than perhaps any other artefact is able to? Not only does the printed page preserve the words of those who went before, but the integration of images by artists, great and small, lends life and visual stimulation to the ideas and experiences that fill the book. When you add to this the provenances of former custodians, many of whom took great trouble to bind their books magnificently, and you also require the books to be in as good condition as possible, you have established the criteria for building a great library without any of the regret or irony implicit in the words that might grace its portal: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’.

Chapter One: ‘The East’, wrote James Wellsted in his Travels to the City of the Caliphs of 1840, ‘is a country of adventures; nowhere is travelling fraught with more danger nor possessed of more interest; here our steps lead over trackless deserts, or there we wander amidst the ruins of former cities which have been, and now are not; yet their mouldering ruins still last above all time, and lead us to ponder on the pages of history.’ The traditional travel book was both an adventure story and a study of history. It forms a genre which has never ceased to delight. From the earliest cosmographies and memoirs of visitors to distant lands the travel book, which could be used both as a guide and as entertainment, has always found a gigantic market. The quantity and the variety of provenances of such works in the Arcadian Library show how popular it was.

The authors fall into a number of different categories. To pilgrims, merchants, missionaries, diplomats, scientists, antiquaries and archaeologists, soldiers and tourists we can add a large proportion of women. Some, obviously, fit into more than one group. Marco Polo, for example, in the thirteenth century, can be regarded, like his father and his uncle whom he accompanied, as both a merchant and a diplomat. Sir John Mandeville, allegedly travelling in the fourteenth century but whose very existence has frequently been called in doubt, might be seen as a pilgrim, but his travels far beyond Jerusalem have more in common with the adventures of the inquisitive tourist …

Chapter Two: By the mid-sixteenth century most of the Arab world, together with a sizeable part of Eastern Europe, had been incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. The terms, such as ‘Saracens’ or ‘Moors’, that had been bestowed on the Arabs in the West came to be replaced by the word ‘Turk’. The Quran was described as the ‘Turkish Alcoran’. Islam was regarded as an essentially Turkish faith. And the great enemy of Christendom, with an empire which stretched to the Austrian borders, was ‘the Turk’. Until what is known as the Second Siege of Vienna, the Austro-Polish defeat of the Turkish army at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the Turks were generally regarded, despite such setbacks as the unsuccessful siege of Malta in 1565 and the Christian victory at Lepanto in 1571, as all but invincible.

On the one hand the Turk was seen as the enemy and was feared accordingly, and on the other the Ottoman world inspired immense curiosity. European approaches to the Turks tend to fall into two broad categories. There is a large body of works connected with the Turkish wars, and an equally large body which supplies information about Turkish life, Turkish religious observances, and Turkish history …

Chapter Three: The field in which the Arab and Persian contribution to progress was most widely acknowledged in the West was science. In spite of the criticisms which started in the Renaissance and increased during the scientific revolution preceding the Enlightenment, Arabic writings on science were consulted from the eleventh century, when they were first translated into Latin, to the eighteenth century, when efforts were still being made to establish satisfactory versions of certain texts. Even if a humanist such as Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola might object, in his De rerum praenotione in the first years of the sixteenth century, to the practice of geomancy and necromancy, the many apologias for the study of Arabic between 1500 and 1800 nearly all emphasized the benefits of consulting the scientists who wrote in Arabic.

The great scientific movement itself originated from the translations made in Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, between the middle of the eighth and the end of the tenth century. The translators, who included many Syriac-speaking Christians, translated Greek scientific texts, by Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, into Arabic, sometimes from Syriac or Persian versions, and sometimes directly from the Greek. Soon the Arabs and the Persians themselves were making experiments and formulating theories which led to a scientific tradition that spread across the Islamic world, as far east as India and as far west as Umayyad Spain. Immense advances were made in every domain—astronomy, chemistry, natural history, mathematics and medicine …

Chapter Four: However favourably many Europeans may have judged the Arab and Persian scientists there was a decidedly more ambivalent attitude to the religions of North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Islam had been regarded, ever since the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, as the great enemy of Christendom. The horror that it inspired in the Middle Ages persisted in the early modern period as the Turks extended their empire deep into Christian territory in the Balkans and Central Europe. This attitude was reflected in the early publications on the Islamic conquests. At first there were the Byzantine histories, describing the triumph of Islam from a Christian point of view. These were the sources of Celio Curione’s Sarracenicae historiae libri tres first published in Basle in 1567 and in English in 1575 in a translation by the poet, physician and theologian Thomas Newton. In the second half of the sixteenth century the German classical scholar Friedrich Sylburg issued a collection of Byzantine writings on the Arabs, Saracenica sive Moamethica. Another example is the work of the Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles. Besides a Latin translation of his history, the Arcadian Library has a French version, which once belonged to Armand Du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, supplemented by Thomas Artus and François Eudes de Mézeray (who brought it up to 1661) and which was published in Blaise de Vigenère’s French translation in 1662 …

Chapter Five: Spain was by far the greatest and most enduring Arab possession in Europe. The invasion started in 711 under the Umayyad caliphate, and within two years the larger part of the peninsula was under Arab control. The conquered territory was known as al-Andalus. The Umayyad dynasty in Spain was at the height of its splendour in the tenth century. It was then that ‘Abd al-Rahman III assumed the title of caliph, built the palace of Madinat al-Zahra near his capital of Cordova, and ruled over a land renowned for its toleration of the Christians and the Jews, both of whom contributed to the flourishing culture of Arab Spain. Cordova itself was, together with Constantinople and Baghdad, one of the most civilized cities in the world, with streets paved and illuminated, an illustrious university and a magnificent library. ‘The Universities of Toledo, Cordova, Seville, and Granada’, wrote Washington Irving, whose enthusiasm would affect so many of his contemporaries, ‘were sought by the pale student from other lands, to acquaint himself with the sciences of the Arabs, and the treasured lore of antiquity; the lovers of the gay sciences resorted to Cordova and Granada, to imbibe the poetry and music of the East, and the steel-clad warriors of the north hastened thither to accomplish themselves in the graceful exercises and courteous usages of chivalry.’ ...

The Arcadian Library has a number of items from this early period of Spanish history…

Chapter Six: There were many reasons to learn oriental languages by the early sixteenth century. Scientific writings needed to be translated; existing translations had to be improved; reliable manuscripts had to be collected. The permanence of commercial and diplomatic dealings with the immense area over which Arabic, in some form, was spoken, gave the study of the language a particular urgency. Guillaume Postel, that versatile author by whom the library owns so many books, including his De universitate bound with his De cosmographica disciplina, had once said that the knowledge of Arabic made it possible to travel from the Canary to the Molucca Islands without an interpreter. Diplomats may have benefited from the use of translators, but many travellers, whether they were pilgrims, merchants, scientists, antiquaries or simply tourists, needed some Arabic.

At the suggestion of Roger Bacon and other scholars the Church Council held in the French town of Vienne in 1312 announced the foundation of chairs in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Greek at the main European universities—Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Salamanca, and the seat of the papacy which was then Avignon. The proposal, however, remained a dead letter. Even if Hebrew was being taught widely in the first decades of the sixteenth century and professorships were established in a number of European universities, Arabic had to bide its time. Occasional professorships were instituted, for example for Postel at the Collège Royal, the humanist foundation of the French king François I, but it was not until the seventeenth century that chairs were set up in the main universities of Northern Europe—Leiden in the Low Countries, Oxford and Cambridge in England, and other seats of learning in the German-speaking area …