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The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition: Virtual Repatriation of Cultural Heritage

  • Sabine Schmidtke (a1)


The manuscript tradition of the Zaydi branch of Shiʿism, which since the 9th century has been preserved primarily in Yemen, is nowadays dispersed over countless libraries in Yemen and the Middle East, Turkey, Europe, and the United States, of which only a fraction has been digitized and is available for open access. Its treasures came to the attention of scholars outside Yemen at a relatively late stage. Whereas the bulk of Arabic manuscripts nowadays housed in the libraries of Europe were acquired between the 17th and 19th centuries in centrally located cities and regions such as the Ottoman capital Istanbul, Syria and Palestine, and Egypt—all strongholds of Sunnism—the collections of Zaydi/Yemeni manuscripts were established only at the end of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. Among the European explorers and merchants who collected manuscripts in South Arabia and later sold them to libraries in Europe was Eduard Glaser, who visited Yemen on four occasions between 1882 and 1894. After Glaser sold the manuscripts purchased during his first and second journey to the Königliche Bibliothek zu Berlin in 1884 and 1887, Wilhelm Ahlwardt made them the last acquisition to be included in his Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts, published between 1887 and 1899. The third Glaser collection was purchased in 1889 by the British Museum in London—with the exception of the Lane collection that was purchased in 1891 and 1893, it was the last acquisition to be included in Charles Rieu's Supplement to the Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts published in 1894. The fourth Glaser collection was sold in 1894 to the Kaiserlich-Königliche Hofbibliothek in Vienna, constituting the most important acquisition of Arabic manuscripts by the library at the time—unlike the Berlin and London Glaser collections, the Vienna Glaser manuscripts were never described in a published catalogue. An even larger collection of Zaydi/Yemeni manuscripts was brought together by the Italian merchant Giuseppe Caprotti during his sojourn in South Arabia from 1885 to 1919. Portions of the Caprotti collection now belong to the Bavarian State Library in Munich and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, while the majority of the collection is owned by the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. European libraries and increasingly US libraries have continuously purchased manuscripts of Yemeni provenance during the 20th and 21st centuries.



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1 For a detailed account of the history of collections of Zaydi manuscripts, see Schmidtke, Sabine, “Preserving, Studying, and Democratizing Access to the World Heritage of Islamic Manuscripts: The Zaydī Tradition,” Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen 23 (2017): 103–66.

2 Roper, Geoffrey, ed., World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts (London: al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1994), 3:38 .

3 “Yemen, Turkey to Sign Manuscripts Protocol,” Saba Net, accessed 21 September 2017,

4 Gabrielle vom Bruck, personal communication with the author, 26 June 2017.

5 “US Ready to Return Yemen's Manuscripts: Ambassador,” Saba Net, accessed 21 September 2017,; Matthew H. Tueller, personal communication with the author, 25 June 2017.

6 See, for example, “Antiquities and Manuscripts Captured with Three Persons,” 2008, accessed 2 October 2017,; “Attempted Smuggle of 40 Manuscripts, Failed,” 2008, accessed 2 October 2017,; “51 Yemeni Antiquity Pieces, 312 Manuscripts Seized,” 2010, accessed 2 October 2017,; Fakhri Al-Arashi, “14 Stolen Manuscripts Returned to the Ministry of Culture,” National Yemen, 2013, accessed 2 October 2017,; and Nasser Al-Sakkaf, “Authorities Thwart Smuggling of 14 Historic Manuscripts,” 2013, accessed 2 October 2017,

7 See Hollenberg, David and Regourd, Anne, “Manuscript Destruction and Looting in Yemen: A Status Report,” Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen 21 (2016): 157–77; and Gabriele vom Bruck, “Saada: Ground Zero” (memo presented at a workshop on “Yemen's Urban–Rural Divide and the Ultra-Localisation of the Civil War,” organized by the LSE Middle East Centre, 29 March 2017), accessed 2 October 2017,

8 The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition, accessed 2 October 2017,

9 vHMML, accessed 2 October 2017,

10 Bibliotheca Laureshamensis Digital: Virtual Monastic Library of Lorsch, accessed 2 October 2017,

11 The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies Manuscript Collection, accessed 2 October 2017, See also Boserup, Ivan, “The Manuscript and the Internet: Digital Repatriation of Cultural Heritage,” IFLA Journal 31 (2005): 169–73.

12 The connection between the preservation of cultural heritage and security is also explicitly mentioned in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347 (2017). See also Al-Makaleh, Nabil and al-Quraishi, Fahd, “Preservation of Cultural Heritage Is the Preservation of Cultural Identity and Belonging,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill My Eye, ed. Marchand, Trevor H.J. (London: Gingko Library, 2017), 215–22.

The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition: Virtual Repatriation of Cultural Heritage

  • Sabine Schmidtke (a1)


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