Project makes Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts accessible to scholars

Yale Library has hundreds of Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts but lacked staff with the language skills to catalog them, so it enlisted a graduate student to help.
The Maʿrifetnāme, an encyclopedia authored by the Ottoman scholar İbrāhīm Ḥaḳḳī Efendi.

The afterlife, including the layers of heaven and hell, is depicted in a 18th-century copy of the Maʿrifetnāme, an encyclopedia authored by the Ottoman scholar İbrāhīm Ḥaḳḳī Efendi. (Photo by Allie Barton)

Turning the pages of a manuscript copy of the Maʿrifetnāme, an 18th-century encyclopedia authored by the Ottoman scholar and Sufi poet İbrāhīm Ḥaḳḳī Efendi, can lead readers to seventh heaven and the depths of hell.

A copy of the beautifully illuminated manuscript — one of just a handful from the 18th century known to exist — is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, part of the Yale Library. It features a detailed illustration of the Islamic conception of Judgment Day, including the seven layers of paradise and perdition, the scales used to weigh people’s deeds, and the book in which their sins and virtues are recorded. A cauldron of tar awaits those cast into hell. A lote tree marks the upper boundary of heaven.

Manuscript maps
Yale’s copy of the Maʿrifetnāme features detailed world maps. (Photo by Allie Barton)

Brightly colored world maps, diagrams, and charts join the rendering of the afterlife within the manuscript’s pages. The Ottoman-Turkish text explores a vast range of subjects, including astronomy, biology, physics, faith, mathematics, and mysticism.

The manuscript is an intellectual feast for scholars and bibliophiles. But until now, few knew how to find it.

The Maʿrifetnāme is one of 567 Ottoman-Turkish objects — spanning the mid-15th century to the early 20th century, including hundreds of manuscripts, a scroll calendar, imperial orders, and the passport of an Ottoman pasha — being cataloged so that researchers can easily find and access them in the library’s collections.

Until recently no one on the library staff had the specialized language skills — Ottoman Turkish is complex and difficult, incorporating Arabic, Persian, and modern Turkish — to catalog these materials so they could be listed in the Yale Library’s searchable databases. But last September the library enlisted Ayşe Çiçek Ünal, a graduate student in the Department of History, to create catalog records for each of the objects, which are drawn from three distinct collections. Guiding her are Özgen Felek, a lector of Ottoman in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Agnieszka Rec, an early materials cataloger at the Beinecke Library, and Roberta Dougherty, librarian for Middle East studies.

Ayşe Çiçek Ünal and Özgen Felek
Ayşe Çiçek Ünal and Özgen Felek (Photo by Allie Barton)

Recruiting the help of a graduate student to a fill a gap in staff expertise is a unique arrangement within the library, said Rec, who advises Ünal on how to catalog the materials.

We have no in-house curator who specializes in Middle Eastern manuscripts. Nobody on staff has the Ottoman-Turkish language skills to do the work,” she said. “This model is an efficient way to make these materials available to scholars while helping Ayşe develop useful skills.”

An invaluable experience

For Ünal, whose doctoral work examines the influence of the Ottoman Empire in its far-flung provinces in North Africa, the project offers a chance to examine materials relevant to her scholarly interests while also gaining experience working in a research library — a setting she most often experiences as a patron. At the same time, she is using her knowledge of Ottoman Turkish to catalog the materials so that researchers can locate and study them.

Gaining experience and skills in cataloging is invaluable to me,” said Ünal, who studied Ottoman Turkish and Ottoman paleography while pursuing her undergraduate and masters’ degrees in TOBB University in Ankara, Turkey, and Istanbul Sehir University in Istanbul, respectively. “I rely on Ottoman-Turkish texts in my research. For me, each of these manuscripts is unique and important in its own way. And I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to learn as I catalog them.”

Lavishly decorated manuscript page.
Many of the Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts are lavishly decorated. (Photo by Allie Barton)

The manuscripts range across many genres and topics, including history, poetry, literature, mysticism, Islamic law, religious sermons, medical texts, dictionaries, and account books. They include the Vankulu Lügati (The Vankulu Dictionary), a two-volume Arabic-Turkish dictionary that in 1729 became the first printed book ever published in the Ottoman Empire, as well as a biography of Alexander the Great, and Leylā vü Mecnūn, a well-known romance in Islamic literature, akin to “Romeo and Juliet,” among many other notable works.

Felek, who teaches Ottoman Turkish, incorporated the manuscripts into “Reading and Research in Ottoman History and Literature,” a course she taught in the fall of 2019. Her 10 students — seven graduate students and three undergraduates — each chose a manuscript to research. They shared their findings at a symposium at Sterling Memorial Library that Felek organized with Dougherty. The occasion marked the manuscripts’ introduction to the academic world, Felek said.

Following the symposium, Felek approached the Beinecke’s leadership team about cataloging the manuscripts. Beinecke Director Michelle Light greenlit the project and endorsed the idea of involving a graduate student — a model she was familiar with from other institutions.

Agnieszka Rec, Ayşe Çiçek Ünal, and Özgen Felek
From left to right, Agnieszka Rec, Ayşe Çiçek Ünal, and Özgen Felek are cataloging hundreds of Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts so that scholars can easily access them in the Yale University’s Library’s collections. (Photo by Allie Barton)

To start, Felek, the project’s faculty advisor, selected 25 manuscripts to catalog in the fall semester of 2022, initially focusing on prominent works of Ottoman literature and culture as well as texts with multiple copies across the three collections.

It seemed sensible to start with texts that were widely read during the Ottoman Empire that still receive much attention from scholars,” Felek said. 

Additionally, they cataloged texts of which there are multiple copies in the collections, which speeds the cataloging process because information can be repeated from one manuscript record to another. They also prioritized manuscripts that need special care so that they can be cataloged and sent to conservation for treatment.

Ottoman Turkish was used widely within the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa from 1299 to 1923, and during the early years of the Turkish Republic that rose from the empire’s collapse after World War I.

Yale’s collection of Ottoman Turkish manuscripts formed gradually, beginning in 1870 when Edward Salisbury, the university’s first professor of Arabic and Sanskrit languages and literature, donated his library of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts to the library.

Illuminations and annotations

Cataloging provides an accurate and detailed record of a manuscript. The process begins with a physical description of the manuscript, including its dimensions and number of pages. The title and author are recorded. The manuscript’s binding and any illuminations and other decorations are documented. Moving page by page, Felek and Ünal examine annotations and marginalia that readers added to the text over the centuries. They try to identify the scribe and the artists who created the illustrations as well as when and where the manuscript was produced. They also note any repairs made to the manuscripts and study the content of the text.

Ünal and Felek frequently consult with Yasemin Sönmez, an Ankara-based Turkish calligrapher and independent scholar who provides them detailed explanations of material aspects and calligraphical styles of the manuscripts. They have also enjoyed the help of Dougherty and several graduate students.

Occasionally, the first few pages of a manuscript will be written in Arabic and then transition to Ottoman Turkish. The flyleaf — blank pages at the front of the manuscript — can contain information on the manuscript’s provenance and the people who have read it, including dates of ownership and inheritance. Occasionally they also contain personal notes, such as a grocery list. (“It is a resource for social history,” Ünal said.) And at times, manuscripts yield unexpected surprises. Ünal discovered a German coin inside the pages of one.

Aside from making the materials accessible, cataloging has a security aspect to it, Rec explained.

You can’t know what you’ve lost if you don’t know what you have,” she said. “The record might state that a miniature is located on a specific page. If the page is missing, it suggests somebody has taken it.”

To date, nearly 78 manuscripts have been catalogued.

For Ünal, the work serves as a continual reminder of the richness of Ottoman culture and history — the subject to which she has devoted her scholarly career.

This project immensely contributes to my bibliographic knowledge, enriches my understanding of manuscripts, and broadens my perspective,” she said. “It motivates me to imagine potential research questions in every single manuscript.”

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