Lifting the Veil: Oriental Manuscripts in the Austrian National Library


Handschriften und alte Drucke
Ornament mit arabischer Schrift

In a collaboration with the Museum With No Frontiers (MWNF) key manuscripts from the Arabic, Ottoman, and Persian cultural spheres ranging from the 8th to the 19th century have been identified and made accessible online.

Author: Theresa Zischkin

In 2021, the Collection of Manuscripts at the Austrian National Library (ANL) embarked on a digital journey with a great collaboration: choosing 30 manuscripts of the “oriental” collection to be represented in the “Discover Islamic Art” section of the online database “Museum With No Frontiers” (MWNF). This was no easy feat, as the ANL collection contains an abundance of fascinating manuscripts!

World Map, “Kitab Suwar al-Aqalim”(“Book of Images of the Lands”), 16thcentury, Turkey, ANL Cod. Mixt. 344, fol. 2b.

Many “oriental” manuscripts stem from the collection of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1744-1856), which were later documented by Franz Unterkircher in 1959. Yet, it was Dorothea Duda (1983-2008) who compiled detailed catalogues on manuscripts in the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish language (1983, 1992, 2008), incorporating stylistic criteria through comparative analyses as well as explaining the content of the painting, and, where possible, trying to establish the provenance of an individual manuscript.

The final 30 manuscripts singled out for inclusion in the collaboration are both part of a great literary tradition as well as incorporating accompanying illustrations and paintings. Moreover, these manuscripts originate from a variety of geographic locations, dynasties, and literary categories. In the following, some of the specimens will be discussed to illustrate the astounding thematic breadth of the medieval and early modern collection of “oriental” manuscripts.

An Incredible Variety

Did you know that the Austrian National Library houses the oldest known surviving Islamic manuscript in the Persian language? It is a copy of the 10th-century writer Abu Mansur Muwaffaq ibn ‘Ali al-Harawi’s book called “The Book of Fundamentals on the True Nature of Remedies” from the 11th century.

“Kitab al-Abniya 'an haqa'iq ad-adwiya” (“The Book of Fundamentals on the True Nature of Remedies”),447 AH/1055-1056 AD,Nakhichivan/Azerbaijan(?), ANL A. F. 340, fol. 1r.

Medicinal treatises at the ANL also incorporate the famous “Book of Antidotes” or “Kitab al-diryaq” with its abundance of illustrations. Moreover, the Qur’an collection includes one of the oldest examples from early 8th-century Iraq, a 16th-century Safavid octagonal piece with its metal box, and an 18th-century Persian miniature Qur’an. Another important manuscript is the “Maqamat” or “Assemblies” by al-Hariri of Basra (1054-1122), a collection of stories written in rhymed prose and poetry, the text filled with Arabic idioms and accompanied by interesting illustrations.

Frontispiece, “Kitab al-diryaq”(“Book of Antidotes”), c. 1220-40 AD, Mosul (?), ANL Cod. A. F. 9, fol. 1a.

Copies of the “Diwan” of Hafez (c. 1325-1390) or the “Bustan” (“Fruit Garden”) of Sa’di (c. 1210-1292) containing ethical anecdotes are represented alongside astrological cosmographies and calendars with the signs of the zodiac as well as topographical works such as cartographies, atlases, and manuals of navigation. Particularly noteworthy examples are two Ottoman genealogies, ranging from Adam and Eve to the ruling sultan (for whom these works may have been commissioned) with “portrait”-style renderings of the mythical or historical individuals. 

Portraits of three Ottoman sultans, “Sübhet al-Akhbar”(“The Rosary of World History, Genealogy of Ottoman Personalities”), around 1094 AH/1683 AD,Turkey,ANL Cod. A. F. 50, fol. 16a.

However, various romantic epics can also be found in the collection, for example “Humay and Humayun”, “Mihr and Mushtari”, “Yusuf and Zulaikha”, and the popular “Khamsa” (“Quintet”) of Nizami Ganjavi (c. 1141-1209). Epic poems include the famous Persian “Shahnama” or “Book of Kings” as well as its later Qajar rendering, the so-called “Shahanshahnama” (“Book of the King of Kings”). Last but certainly not least, a luxurious Ottoman album (muraqqa’) incorporating calligraphic and painterly specimens testifies to the fascinating collecting habits of artistic patrons outside of Europe.

A Muraqqa’ for the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-1595)

Two folios of a muraqqa’(album), 980 AH/1572-73 AD, Turkey, ANL Cod. Mixt. 313, fol.4b(r.), 7a (l.).
Two folios of a muraqqa’(album), 980 AH/1572-73 AD, Turkey, ANL Cod. Mixt. 313, fol.4b(r.), 7a (l.).

The term muraqqa’ (“patched garment”) refers to the patchwork character of the collection of calligraphy, drawing, and painting in codex-format, significant for Safavid and Ottoman cultures as a means of collecting and displaying artworks. This album was compiled for the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul in 980 AH/1572-73 AD, including ornamental and figural pen-and-ink drawings, (lacquer) paintings, paper cuttings, and calligraphy pages mounted on decorated frame boards. The album was brought to Austria as a diplomatic gift for the Austrian emperor, after which it became part of the ANL in 1833-34.

The specimens encompass a young European’s portrait, likely created in the first quarter of the 17th century in Isfahan, surrounded by a richly decorated frame with Ottoman floral designs in various colours. The young man in the centre wears a costume mixing traditional European fashion of the time, including a black hat and white ruff around the neck, with Persian-style clothing such as the robe, trousers, and slippers. He is holding a book in his hands and gazes into the distance. In contrast, the large group of calligraphic works feature, among others, the paper-cut calligraphy of Muhammad Tahir, dated to 961 AH/1553-54 AD in Istanbul, within a frame of golden lattice and floral design. The text includes verses of Jami, a praise to God, and the signature of the bookbinder. Perhaps the chief bookbinder of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566)?

The Epic Poem of the “Shahnama” (Book of Kings)

TheEpic Poem of the “Shahnama” (Book of Kings) Simurgh returning Zal to Sam, “Shahnama” (“Book of Kings”),1025-26 AH/1616-17 AD, Isfahan,ANL Cod. N. F. 118, fol. 46a.

Abu'l-Qasim Mansur, called Ferdowsi (died 411 AH/1020-1 AD) wrote the renowned, extensive epic poem called “Shahnama”, “The Book of Kings”, around 1000 AD. This 17th-century copy was likely written near Isfahan, Iran. According to an owner’s stamp, it was part of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall's collection in 1223 AH/1808-9 AD and became part of the ANL in 1842. Its 44 paintings of various sizes, artistic styles, and qualities include the famous scene of the legendary bird Simurgh returning Zal to his father Sam. Sam, a mythical hero, kneels praying in the lush foreground of a mountainous landscape, looking up to Simurgh. The bird carries its ward Zal, whom Sam had left in the mountains as an infant because of his white hair. The vivid scene expresses a sense of dynamic immediacy.

The Seduction of Yusuf in Sa’di’s Bustan (“Fruit Garden”)

The Seduction of Yusuf inSa’di’s Bustan(“Fruit Garden”)The Seduction of Yusuf, “Bustan”(“Fruit Garden”)of Sa’di, c. 937-47 AH/1530-40 AD, Tabriz, ANL Cod. A. F. 103, fol. 73a.

Sa'di wrote the “Bustan” (“Fruit Garden”), one of his major works with anecdotes incorporating accounts of the author’s travels. This 16th-century copy from Tabriz, Iran, was acquired in 1677 in Constantinople and, thus, found its way into the Austrian National Library. The manuscript contains five full-page paintings connected to the Timurid dynasty’s school of Herat. One painting depicts the scene of Zulaikha trying to seduce Yusuf in the midst of a magnificent palace, with the surrounding verses relating the story. The luxurious architecture, reminiscent of Tabrizi building traditions, is decorated with a variety of colourful tiles, carpets, ornamental as well as figural wall paintings, and pious inscriptions, even featuring pictures of the main characters. Next to the throne room on the right, Yusuf, his fiery halo signalling his holiness, is trying to escape from Zulaikha’s grip. On the left side, outside of the palace within a lush garden, the gatekeeper and a servant are conversing.

This selection is but a small insight into a large and diverse collection, providing ample opportunity for investigating particular collectors, gifted collections, and individual manuscripts. The collaboration with the MWNF will greatly aid in elevating the “oriental” collection to the digital spheres, and shed light on the manifold, potential research projects related to this corpus in the future. Until then, enjoy reading the full entries at the MWNF database! (

About the author: Theresa Zischkin worked as a volunteer at the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books, creating database entries for the Museum With No Frontiers (MWNF) as well as documenting Dorothea Duda’s bequest.


Dorothea Duda, Islamische Handschriften I. Persische Handschriften (Die illuminierten Handschriften und Inkunabeln der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek Vol. 4, Vienna 1983).
Dorothea Duda, Islamische Handschriften II. Die Handschriften in Arabischer Sprache (Die illuminierten Handschriften und Inkunabeln der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek Vol. 5/1, Vienna 1992).
Dorothea Duda, Islamische Handschriften II/2. Persische Handschriften (Die illuminierten Handschriften und Inkunabeln der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek Vol. 5/2, Vienna 2008).
Aimée Froom, A Muraqqa' for the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-1595). Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Mixtus 313 (New York 2001).


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