Early Modern Libyan Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

A great deal of historical writing on early modern Libya depends on sources written by Westerners, whether colonial archival documents, or travelogues and journals written by travellers, British diplomats’ relatives, and so forth. Only recently are local documentary archives coming to light (e.g. the ones in Ghadames). But there are also Libyan historical texts from before the colonial era scattered in collections in Libya and elsewhere. Here and in some upcoming posts I’ll try to post some brief guides to these resources, many of which still require study and publication.

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris has a few interesting Libyan historical manuscripts (described in William MacGuckin de Slane’s Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, pp. 339-340). Fortunately, several of the manuscripts have been digitized and are freely available to download and read. Here is a brief description of each manuscript.

BNF ms. arabe 1889

A manuscript comprising three (thematically related) texts. The longest and most important is a long commentary by Muḥammad bin Khalīl bin Ghalbūn entitled التذاكر في من ملك طرابلس وما كان بها من الاخبار on a poem praising the city of Tripoli by ‘Abd al-Dāyim al-Anṣārī, being essentially a history of the city from the Muslim conquest to the time of its composition in the mid-18th century. The second is a two-page notice on Tripoli by Muḥammad bin Muḥammad al-‘Abdari who visited in 688 AH / 1289 CE. The third is copies of an anonymous verse text comprising an elogy in response to a satire by a Levantine traveler. The manuscript was brought to France by Jacques-Denis Delaporte, consul of France in Tripoli in the 1870s. Link to manuscript online.

The manuscript was edited and published (in Arabic) by Tahir Ahmad al-Zawi (Tripoli, al-Dār al-Islāmī, 1931/1967). An Italian translation for the benefit of the colonial regime was published by Ettore Rossi (La cronaca arabe tripolina di Ibn Ġalbūn (sec. xviii), Licinio Cappelli: Bologna, 1936). The Libyan scholar Ḥabīb al-Ḥasnāwī reports that there are additional copies of Ibn Ghalbūn’s chronicle in Tripoli and Istanbul, and that in addition an Ottoman Turkish translation was made in the 1860s by a Tripolitanian judge, which is also now in Istanbul ().

BNF ms. arabe 1890

A short manuscript of just 32 pages containing (1) an abridged history of Tripolitania and the conquest of the Fezzan beginning from 958 AH / 1551-2 CE, in Arabic with a handwritten French translation; (2) French translation of a history of the rule of Ali Garamanli. Link to manuscript online.

The first text was composed by a certain Muṣṭafa al-Miṣrī Khōja (d. 1798), who was secretary to ‘Ali Pasha Garamanli (d. 1793). The manuscript was given to Anne-Charles Froment de Champ Lagarde, the French vice-consul in Tripoli at the time, who seems to have added the French translation. Khōja’s text seems to be derived in part from Ibn Ghalbūn’s Tidhkār mentioned above. According to Gottlob A. Krause, who authored a study of the text (“Zur Geschichte von Fesān und Tripoli in Afrika”, Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin 13 (1878), pp. 356-373), the original had ended up in Malta housed in the Royal Library in Valletta under catalog number 113. Krause also found that William de Slane reported having made a copy of the manuscript in August 1845 (in Journal Asiatique, January 1847, p. 84), which de Slane repeats in his catalog mentioned at the top of this post. The BnF manuscript is de Slane’s copy of the original in Malta, as a note on the manuscript itself makes clear. De Slane’s Arabic handwriting, moreover, seems quite nice.

A critical edition was published by Ḥabīb al-Ḥasnāwī (Tārīkh Fazzān, Tripoli: Tạrābulus: Markaz Dirāsat Jihād al-Lībīyīn lil-Dirāsāt al-Tārīkhīyah, 1979).

BNF ms. arabe 1891

A text about Ghadames dated to 1181 AH / 1767 CE, only 7 pages long. It is a separate copy of a text from manuscript 1892. Link to manuscript online.

BNF ms. arabe 1892

A manuscript of the 18th century containing several texts, the first of which is a copy of the above. It is chiefly the first two texts which are of interest for Libyan history; so far I only know of publication of the first.  Link to manuscript online.

  1. A history of Ghadames including moral and religious advice, dated 1181 AH / 1767 CE. The author is named Muṣṭafa Khōja ibn Qāsim al-Miṣri, thus the same person who composed the history of the Fezzan preserved in ms. 1891 above. This was published with French translation by René Basset, the French Berberologist, as an appendix to Calassanti-Motylinski’s, Le Dialecte berbère de R’edamès in 1904 (some discussion of that work at this other post).
  2. A history of Tripoli ending with the conquests of Darġūt Pāsha, written in 1809 CE by the French consul-chancellor at Tripoli.
  3. Model letters for writing to people like sultans etc.
  4. Collection of wise sayings attributed to Aristotle as well as some attributed to ‘Abd al-Malik b. al-Marwān.
  5. A history of Mawlay Sulayman, the Moroccan ruler, covering 1202 AH / 1787 CE on.
  6. Topographical and historical details about Fez, excerpted from a work by Aḥmad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Burnūṣī.
  7. Genealogy of some western African families who descend from Ali.

BNF ms. arabe 1893

A manuscript of 103 pages entitled كتاب رىّ الغليل في اخبار بني عبد الجليل من سلاطين بلاد الفزان, a history of the family of the famed southern Libyan leader ‘Abd al-Jalīl Sayf al-Naṣr written by his son, Muḥammad, in Paris in 1852. ‘Abd al-Jalīl was head of the Awlād Sulaymān, and was a major figure in resistance to the Ottoman presence in the Fezzan after its reconquest of Tripoli in 1835. Link to manuscript online.

Title page of 1893, including (presumably) the author’s personal seal

The article of E. Subtil (“Histoire d’Abd-el-Gelil, Sultan du Fezzan (assassiné en 1842)”, Revue de l’Orient, pp. 3-30), who was a French agent in the Sahara, seems to be quite parallel to this text, although the article appeared almost 10 years before the Paris manuscript was made. For more on Subtil, see Benjamin Brower, “Rethinking Abolition in Algeria. Slavery and the “Indigenous Question””. For more on the Awlād Sulaymān, see also Dennis Cordell, “The Awlad Sulayman of Libya and Chad: Power and Adaptation in the Sahara and Sahel“. And, for more on ‘Abd al-Jalīl, see Muḥammad Imḥammad al-Ṭuwayr, “ثورة عبد الجليل سيف النصر ضد الاتراك العثمانيين في ولاية طرابلس الغرب ١٨٣١م-١٨٤٢م”, مجلة البحوث التاريخية, 20/1 (1998), 137–69.

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