CAIRO – The eagle-eyed French scholar Dr. Eléonore Cellard has identified shadowy outlines of Bible passages behind an 8th-century manuscript of Qur’an
This discovery certainly points to long centuries of interfaith interaction between Muslims and Christians.
“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 French professor at the College de France told The Guardian on April 25.
Cellard was looking for images of a palimpsest page sold a decade earlier by the British auction house Christie’s when she came across its latest catalog, which included fragments from a manuscript of Qur’an which Christie’s had dated to the 8th century AD aka the 2nd Hijri Century.
Scrutinizing the image, she noticed that there were Coptic letters which appeared faintly behind the Arabic script. The Coptic letters are believed to be the latest development of the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
Cellard contacted Christie’s and they managed to identify the Coptic text as coming from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy – part of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament.
“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 an Egyptian text,” Christie’s specialist Romain Pingannaud explained.
“And what’s even more fascinating is it’s on top of passages from the Old Testament … It shows the contact between communities in the first centuries of Islam; it’s very relevant,” he added.
Christie’s, which is offering the fragments for auction with a guide price of £80,000-£120,000 on Thursday, believes that the manuscript is likely to have been produced in Egypt when the Coptic Language, the 6th development of the Ancient Egyptian Language, was the main language of Egypt at the time of the Arab conquest.
These fragments seem to resonate with the historical reality of religious communities in the Mediterranean World during this time when Egypt started to shift from Christianity to Islam.
Now Islam makes about 92% of the nation’s 104 million population, according to the 2018 estimate of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in Egypt.
However, all the genetic studies conducted on Ancient and modern Egyptians prove that Egypt’s shift was only religious and not physical as Arabs form as few as four million individuals only in this North African nation, while the majority of the population between 75% and 68% descend from the Ancient Egyptians and have their same North African Mediterranean genome.
Time of Parchment
While the writing style of the Qur’an scribe dates it to around the 8th century or early 9th century, it’s not possible to identify how much older the ghostly Coptic writing is, although the formation of the letters means it’s unlikely to have been written earlier than the 7th century, 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,” he explained.
Qur’anic palimpsests are “extremely rare”, according to Christie’s, with only a handful having been previously recorded, none of which were copied above a Christian text.
Other examples of Qur’anic palimpsests include two leaves from a 7th-century Hijazi Qur’an, which is copied above an earlier version of the Qur’an.
“We think this is because the Qur’an is such an important text and although vellum was very expensive, the Qur’an was always written on new material. It’s highly revered and so they would use a brand new material,” said Pingannaud.
It was, however, “quite common in the Ancient Mediterranean World to have palimpsests”, he added.
“Parchment is very strong, it doesn’t suffer too much – it’s sensitive to humidity but very solid,” he said.
“At the time it was erased the parchment was probably like new and it’s only with centuries passing that the ink which sank into the parchment provides this ghost image we see.”