The University of Melbourne Library Middle Eastern Manuscripts Collection

Introduction to the Middle Eastern Manuscript Collection at the University of Melbourne Library

By Professor Robyn Sloggett

Professor John Bowman (1916-2006)
Professor John Bowman (1916-2006)

In 1959 Middle Eastern scholar Professor John Bowman (1916-2006) arrived at the University of Melbourne and began to expand the Department of Semitic Studies. He established two journals Abr-Nahrain (now Ancient near Eastern Studies) and Milla waMilla: the Australian Bulletin of Comparative Religion and built a department of scholars from Australia, England, Finland, Iran, Pakistan and Syria. One of his most significant legacies however was the collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, now held in the Rare Books in the University Library.

Professor Bowman’s work embedded in text and the collection comprised in Arabic and Persian, as well as Turkish, Urdu, Ethiopic, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskirt, Pushtu, Prakit and Mongol scripts.

The texts include Islamic religious texts, including Qur’ans and commentary on the Qur’an, as well as significant poetic works, educational textbooks and writing on history, biography, astrology, mathematics, philosophy and weaponry.

In 1975 Professor Bowman retired and the Department was subsumed in a university restructure. The extraordinary collection he amassed was moved across to the University Library, where it existed, safe but invisible for twenty years.

In 1995 Australian Research Centre funding, awarded to the University’s Conservation Centre, in partnership with the School of Physics, to undertake scientific analysis of specific manuscripts in the collection. This enabled Raman analysis of the most beautifully illustrated text. Specific pigments were analysed and translations of treatises on pigment and ink production were examined to determine the materials used to illustrate the pages.

The manuscripts are internationally significant. In 2007 scholars from around the world took part in the Symposium on the Care and Conservation of Middle Eastern Manuscripts at the University of Melbourne. Expert visiting scholars have come to investigate the materials and techniques and the writings of which the manuscripts are compromised. Currently four Doctor of Philosophy – Arts students at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation are working on John Bowman’s collection. Their work is showcased here.

Our Middle Eastern Manuscript research team met with Anna Bowman, the daughter of Professor John Bowman in January 2017. This video is the result of that collaboration

An insight into the work of a team of scholars at the the Grimwade Centre of Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne, which is researching and conserving some of the 200 Middle Eastern manuscripts given to the university library by my late father, Professor John Bowman. When I was in Melbourne recently I was delighted to encounter a display with some familiar manuscripts in the university's Arts West Building and to meet Professor Robyn Sloggett and some of her PhD students at the Grimwade Centre.

For the 2007 Symposium on the Care and Conservation of Middle Eastern Manuscripts,  please see the proceedings brochure. For the 2018 Symposium 'From Melancholy to Euphoria: The Materialisation of Emotion in Middle Eastern Manuscripts' see the programme.

For more information on this collection see the Grimwade Centre blog.