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This rare manuscript is the only recorded palimpsest of a Qur’an copied on to a Christian text

Eagle Eyed scholar Discovers a Rare Manuscript with Bible Text Hidden Under Quran

A rare manuscript has become a unique one thanks to the eagle eyes of a French scholar. Dr. Eléonore Cellard noticed that there was barely visible text beneath an 8th century copy of holy scripture of the Qur’an. And that new information may have influenced bidding when it was sold at an auction - the text brought in almost five times the asking price!

The Guardian reports Dr. Cellard came across the Qur’an fragment while she was searching the catalogue of Christie’s auction house for a palimpsest (a manuscript page which has text scraped or washed off it so that it can be reused for another document) which they sold a decade ago. What she found instead was a vellum page of Arabic script covering Coptic writing. When Cellard contacted Christie’s, they told her the Islamic scribe had re-used a page for his holy writing by covering over text from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy.

Fragment of the rare manuscript sold by Christie’s.

Fragment of the rare manuscript sold by Christie’s. ( Christie’s)

Christie’s specialist Romain Pingannaud reflected on the discovery ,

It’s quite extraordinary. Once you know it’s there, you can only see it, it becomes so obvious. We missed it at the beginning. It’s fascinating, particularly because it’s the only example where you have an Arabic text on top of a non-Arabic text. And what’s even more fascinating is it is on top of passages from the Old Testament … It shows the contact between communities in the first centuries of Islam; it’s very relevant.

Cellard agreed that the find is an excellent example of cultural contact, by stating, “This is a very important discovery for the history of the Qur’an and early Islam. We have here a witness of cultural interactions between different religious communities.”

The Islamic text has been dated to the 8th or early 9th century, however the original Coptic script cannot be dated with accuracy. According to Pingannaud, “Carbon 14 testing would date only the material, not the writing, but it’s quite destructive and these folios are too thin.”

Nonetheless, there are clues which have helped Christie’s to infer some details on the origins of the Bible verse. Coptic text indicates it was probably written in Egypt, the home to a Coptic community when Arabs conquered the region. The letter formation suggests the Coptic text was probably not written before the 7th century.

Coptic liturgic inscription from Upper Egypt, 5th-6th century AD. Found in the collections of the Vatican Museums.

Coptic liturgic inscription from Upper Egypt, 5th-6th century AD. Found in the collections of the Vatican Museums. ( Public Domain )

This gives the document a new value because it is said to “resonate with the historical reality of religious communities in the Near East and as such are an invaluable survival from the earliest centuries of Islam”. Even without the covered text, the fragment has been called “extremely rare” as there are only a few other examples of Qur’anic palimpsests.

The Sana'a palimpsest is one of the oldest Quranic manuscripts in existence. This is the recto side of the Stanford '07 folio. The upper text covers Quran 2 (al-Baqarah).265-271.

The Sana'a palimpsest is one of the oldest Quranic manuscripts in existence. This is the recto side of the Stanford '07 folio. The upper text covers Quran 2 (al-Baqarah).265-271. ( Public Domain )

Christie’s sold the document for an eye-popping GBP 596,750 (822,320 USD) on April 26, 2018. That is something of a shock because the estimated price was between GBP 80,000 – GBP 120,000 (110,239 – 165,359 USD).

While this is the only known example of a palimpsest with Bible verse being covered over by Islamic holy text, it is not the first time scholars have discovered ancient text rubbed out and written over. For example, a 6th century manuscript in the library at St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt was identified as a palimpsest in 2017. That document had a copy of a medical recipe linked to Hippocrates which was erased in the Middle Ages to make space for Bible text known as the “Sinaitic manuscript.”

Example of a palimpsest. The lower text is from the 6th century (Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 92 verso), it contains the text of Luke 1:6-13; the upper text is from the 13th century - Isidore of Seville's "Origines" 8.10.2-8.11.4.

Example of a palimpsest. The lower text is from the 6th century (Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 92 verso), it contains the text of Luke 1:6-13; the upper text is from the 13th century - Isidore of Seville's "Origines" 8.10.2-8.11.4. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: ‘It’s quite extraordinary’ … this rare manuscript is the only recorded palimpsest of a Qur’an copied on to a Christian text. Source: Christie’s

By Alicia McDermott

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