Sammlung Refaiya

  1. Database-supported cataloguing, research, and digital presentation of and on the Refaiya family library at Leipzig University Library
  2. The Refaiya Family Library
  3. Codicological study and cataloguing
  4. Research on the secondary entries in the Refaiya
  5. Bindings in the Refaiya collection (exemplary selection)
  6. Technical aspects

1. Database-supported cataloguing, research, and digital presentation of and on the Refaiya family library at Leipzig University Library

The project aims at the historical and codicological research on, database development and digital presentation of the private Arabic-Islamic library of the Damascene Rifā'ī family. This library, called "Refaiya" (Rifā'īya) - comprising 488 carefully preserved volumes and handed down over several centuries until the 19th century - is the precious core of the approximately 3,200 Oriental manuscripts kept at Leipzig University Library. It is probably a unique example of a cohesive, traditional Arabic-Islamic family library. The preservation of its historical formation is due to the direct acquisition by the Prussian Consul and Arabist Johann Gottfried Wetzstein from its last owner, 'Umar Efendi al-Rifā'ī al-Ḥamawī, in 1853. Deutsches Konsulat in Damaskus

As a cultural archive of a traditional Islamic culture of scholarship, knowledge, and books, which ceased to exist at the time of its sale, the Refaiya bears traces of its history, the history of its owners and users. It thus promises to provide answers to questions of history, culture, and transmission. The comprehensive purpose of the project is to study and catalogue the Refaiya collection within the historical-cultural context from which it originates and from which it received its function and significance.

The trilingual database (English, German and Arabic) and the digitization will facilitate the presentation of a cohesive pre-modern Damascene family library on the Internet and, thereby, make the manuscripts accessible internationally - including the Islamic world - for further research. The digital recording of the Refaiya manuscripts is based on the DFG-funded database, "Pilot Project for a database-supported indexing and digital presentation of the recently acquired Arab, Turkish and Persian manuscripts at the University of Leipzig" ( ). Duration of the project: 2008 - 2013

sponsored by the DFG

2. The Refaiya Library:

The Refaiya Library comprises 488 manuscripts, among them 89 composite manuscripts. In the course of the acquisition of the Refaiya collection, a number of manuscripts had been sorted out, others had been added, so that the 432 volumes which were originally catalogued under the shelfmark D.C., were augmented to 488 volumes during the years 1853 to 1855. Depending on whether and how one counts volumes, composite manuscripts or works, one encounters different numbers of manuscripts in various publications. For the most part, the manuscripts are clearly written and legible. They are bound in Oriental leather bindings, or covers made of cardboard, colored paper or marbled paper. Damaskus - Umayyadan-Moschee

Amongst the collection are 16 ornamented and illuminated books, as well as, according to H.L. Fleischer, twelve possible autographs. Concerning the works’ contents, Fleischer rightly pointed out as noteworthy, that the typical works in Near Eastern mosque and madrasa libraries, namely Qur’ān and scholarly religious works, commentaries and meta-commentaries, are maintained "within reasonable bounds" in this private library, and that the formation of the Refaiya collection shows an apparent systematic character.

In fact, the Refaiya constitutes on the one hand a cross section of many traditional fields of Islamic knowledge with a comparatively high share of poetry (44 exemplars) and mysticism (41 exemplars). In addition, other genres that are rare or not found at all in public Islamic manuscript libraries – such as historiographical works, biographies, belles lettres / adab literature, travelogues, hunting literature, natural sciences, and last but not least, eroticism – are all represented in the Refaiya by several copies. The oldest highly valuable manuscript (Vollers Nr. 0505) is a composite manuscript of three works. Two of them are dated 990 AD (380 h.) and contain the Diwans (a collection of poems) of the poets Abū Ṭālib ‛Abd Manāf (0505a) and Abū´l-Aswad ad-Du´alī (0505b). The third work, the Diwan of Suḥaim ʽAbd Banī l-Ḥasḥās (0505c), is incomplete and not dated, but can be attributed with high probability to the same century (if not the same year), since it is written by the same copyist.

From here, manuscripts copied in subsequent centuries can be found in the Refaiya. In between the oldest manuscript dating from 380/990 (no. 505) and the youngest from 1262/1846 (no. 758), the Refaiya collection comprises manuscripts from all centuries, with most copies dating from the 17.-18th centuries. Notable are the many secondary entries in nearly all the manuscripts, such as ownership statements, and reading annotations; they serve as a testament to the dynamic use of the library. These marginal notes, not necessarily related to the content of the works, give evidence of the intensive intellectual life connected to the Rifā‛ī family and possible earlier owners over centuries.

In this sense, the library is not only a compilation of unique works and documentations of their transmission. Well preserved and apparently collected according personal interests, it provides an insight into the intellectual and cultural interests of its owners in the time before the beginning of early modernization; modernization had radically altered all sectors of public and private life, to the point that the Refaiya eventually lost its worth and impact as a manuscript library.

3. Codicological study and cataloguing

The catalogue entries of the Refaiya manuscripts are divided into two sections. The first section contains detailed information regarding the contents of the manuscript; the second section provides the relevant codicological description. The description is based on the data model, which was developed for the pilot project and follows the guidelines of the KOHD (The Union Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts in German Collections). The Refaiya data model, though, has some minor modifications to the pilot project: The different types of secondary entries are catalogued in a separate structure (historical and prosopographical research). Whereas the book ornamentation receives detailed consideration and examination, the condition of the book cover and the writing material, as well as the detailed description of the copyist’s hand are not considered. Finally, incipit and explicit are only written in the case of an unidentified work (title and/or author).

The following table gives an overview over the main structure of the catalogue:

Physical description Content and History of the book
number of volumes language
binding alphabet
Writing material (material, colour, watermarks) region
number of folios copyist
dimension date of copy
text area author (short version, established version, date of death, place of death, place of activity, bibliographic information)
number of lines title (as in manuscript, established form)
catchwords completeness
script (style, ink) subject matter
illumination/ illustration/ miniature painting content
further copies
editions/ literature

4. Research on the secondary entries in the Refaiya:

The purpose of the historical research perspective is to reconstruct the history of a pre-modern Arabic-Islamic private library that was passed down over several generations, and to study and catalogue the Refaiya collection within the historical-cultural context from which it originates and from which it received its function and significance. Complementary to the historical research perspective, the codicological research refers to the research on individual manuscripts. The research analyses the numerous secondary entries, colophons, marginal notes, collations, physical characteristics etc. in order to maintain detailed information regarding the biography of the manuscripts and, thereby, the library itself.

The following classification according to the type of secondary entry will be implemented:

  •    Owner
  •    Endower
  •    Transmitter
  •    Collation annotation
  •    Reader
  •    Seller
  •    Birth annotation
  •    Death annotation
  •    Misc.

Systematically collected and recorded in a databank, these often brief and seemingly inconspicuous notes, mainly names and eulogies, can be of great value for answering questions such as: Which social strata had access to books? What material value (prices etc.) did the manuscripts have? Which titles were of particular interest? Which genres and books were also read by Christian and Jewish readers? Last but not least, the entries also provide information about age and transmission of individual manuscripts or, as in the case of the Refaiya, about the development of the library as a whole.

5. Bindings in the Refaiya collection (exemplary selection)

The database for book bindings in the Refaiya collection is a pilot project which offers for the first time a systematic database-supported catalogue and presentation of Islamic book bindings. The aim is to develop a basis of comparison for the ornamentation of Islamic book bindings which, in return, would allow in future for a more precise chronological and local classification of bindings.

Each catalogue entry is divided into a general description of the complete binding and descriptions of details, respectively specific parts of the relevant binding. The general description offers an overview over the complete binding, whereas the descriptions of details are dedicated to specific parts and ornaments of the binding (front and back cover, fore-edge flap, envelope flap). True-to-scale-representations of rubbings of the complete binding as well as its single ornaments serve as images. The advantage of rubbings, compared to digitized images of the binding, is that they allow for a more precise and high-contrast display of the binding. A link connects the description of the binding and the rubbings to the general catalogue entry of the relevant manuscript where the scans of the binding can be seen.

6. Technical aspects

As with the pilot project, all metadata and scanned images are displayed using the MyCoRe system (, which specifically targets the needs of digital libraries and archive solutions. It features a flexible, configurable metadata model, an internal, hierarchical file system, hierarchical classification systems, and user and rights administration. The core of the software is subject to the terms of GNU (General Public License), and the working team is pursuing further developments as an open source project.

In order to transfer the software solution from the pilot project to the Refaiya project, a template has been developed that generally serves as a template for database-driven projects. In addition, it was necessary to develop the most standardized version possible (MyIHS) which can be easily adapted to the specific needs of the Refaiya project.

The scan data is also geared toward the standards developed in the pilot project. The master scans are taken at a scale of 1:1 and a resolution of 300 dpi. The color depth is 48 bit. Exceptions are those pages with illuminations, watermarks and the like which had been chosen by the codicologist and which are scanned with a resolution of 600 dpi. The TIFF format is used again as a file format for the master scans, which guarantees sufficient compatibility with all current systems. The master scans are stored separately after contrast and brightness values are compared with the originals and loaded into the back-up cycle. After cropping the edges and extending the Exif data, JPEGs are generated from these at a resolution of 100 dpi.

The search methods are designed to be flexible. The user may choose, for example, between using filters or a keyword search (free text and parametric search), or a combination of these two kinds of searches. Furthermore, the option of “browsing” directly in the collection lists will be made possible.

Two specific databases have been added to the general database-template in order to serve best codicological and cultural historical demands: a database on secondary entries, and a database on bindings (as pilot project with an exemplary selection). In order to meet the demands of a database for Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman manuscripts, the database allows for a search in Arabic script, the official transcriptions for German (Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft) and English (Library of Congress), as well as a search without transcription. A separate keyboard for the Arabic and the transcription systems has been integrated on the website.


* The foregoing texts refer in parts to the following works, which are recommended for further reading on this subject.
Döring, Detlef : Der Erwerb der Refaiya-Handschriften durch die sächsische Regierung im Jahre 1853, in Reuschel, Wolfgang (Hrsg.): Orientalistische Philologie und Arabische Linguistik. In: Asien-Afrika-Lateinamerika, Sonderheft 2 (1990), S. 19-23.
Fleischer, Heinrich Leberecht : Die Refaiya. In: ZDMG 8, 1854, S. 573-584.
Fleischer, Heinrich Leberecht : Kleinere Schriften, Bd. 3, Leipzig 1888.
Flügel, Gustav : Zwei Reisewerke der Refaija auf der Universitätsbibliothek zu Leipzig. In: ZDMG 18 (1864), S. 523-569.
Hartmann, Martin : Die arabisch-islamischen Handschriften der Universitäts-Bibliothek zu Leipzig und der Sammlungen Hartmann und Haupt. In: Zeitschrift für Assyrologie 23 (1909), S. 235-266.
Liebrenz, Boris : Arabische, persische und türkische Handschriften in Leipzig. Geschichte ihrer Sammlung und Erschließung von den Anfängen bis zu Karl Vollers, Leipzig 2008.
Roper, Geoffrey : World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts, 4 vols, London 1992-1994.
Vollers, Karl : Katalog der islamischen, christlich-orientalischen, jüdischen und samaritanischen Handschriften der Universitäts-Bibliothek zu Leipzig. Leipzig 1906 (Nachdruck Osnabrück 1975).