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An introduction to the course of Arabic and Persian paleography

by Prof. Jan Just Witkam (University of Leiden)

Paleography literally means the study of ancient handwriting (Encylopaedia Britannica, 1967 edition). It can be divided into a number of sub-disciplines, according to the goals, which the student of paleography wishes to attain.

First of all the student of ancient handwriting should make himself acquainted with correctly reading and deciphering the script which is the object of his study. Once he has attained a certain proficiency in reading he will be able to compare between different scripts and to distinguish between variations within one script. Further exercise will teach him to develop strategies in tackling difficulties.

At a much later stage the advanced student will be able to determine, to a certain degree of exactitude, age and origin of a manuscript on the basis of its script. Whoever wishes to study paleography for itself, and not as an auxiliary science, will wish to follow the history and developments of scripts, and more generally speaking the history of premodern book culture.

The present course not only provides the beginning paleographer with a selection of specimens of Arabic and Persian manuscripts, but assists him in getting started by giving for each specimen some basic help in the shape of a proposed transliteration. Students are encouraged to carefully study these model transliterations and then try out a few pages without help.

The present course has been tried out for several years in the BA program of the Middle Eastern studies department in Leiden University. The ever-expanding course is now published on the Internet in order to let other beginning paleographers profit from it as well.

Leiden, 24 September 2007

© 2007, Prof. Jan Just Witkam, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Professor of Paleography and Codicology of the Islamic World
University of Leiden, Leiden, The Netherlands