Dr. Eléonore Cellard is a specialist in Qur’ānic manuscripts. Her work incorporates fascinating Islamic scholarly traditions like traveling in search of knowledge "rihla fi talab al-‘ilm," and the spiritual power felt through working with relics and decoding what they symbolize.
We talk to Eleonore about how her connection to Qur’anic studies began and an insight into a world of Qur'anic manuscripts.
Why and how did you develop a connection and interest in Qurʿānic manuscripts?
I became interested in Qurʿānic manuscripts over twenty years ago. I was still a teenager when I was randomly leafing through the catalogue of an auction of Islamic art that contained a folio of the Qurʿān in Kufic script. I was instantly fascinated by the aesthetics of the calligraphy—this sober, angular writing, and the way that it was laid out on the page gave it a powerful majesty, so different from a Western aesthetic.
For years I collected images of Qurʿānic leaves in Kufic script, broken Kufic, and Maghribi. I spent hours trying to reproduce them, and my poor imitations soon covered the walls of my room. My parents started to be concerned when I made plans to engrave a calligraphic frieze inspired by the Alhambra…
This passion led me to major in Arabic at the Institut des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. I later had the opportunity to take courses with Professor Déroche on the codicology of Arabic and Qurʿānic manuscripts. My path lay before me.
Could you explain your work on Qurʿānic manuscripts and what is the aim of your research?
In addition to the aesthetic appeal of handwritten Qurʿāns, I became interested in the historical aspects of ancient Qurʿānic manuscripts. When I first began my research using a corpus of manuscripts held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, I was struck by how little clear, precise knowledge existed about ancient Qurʿānic manuscripts. Where were they made, when, for whom, and by whom? How and in what contexts were they used? And finally, how did they circulate and manage to cross so many centuries until the present day? My research explores the evolution of writing techniques in order to shed light on the historical, geographical, and socio-economic contexts of the manuscripts. In other words, very little is known about these aspects of ancient Qurʿānic manuscripts. My goal is to answer multiple questions related to these contexts, such as: How did writing techniques develop over time and geographically? How did the scribes work? How were the manuscripts used? By increasing our understanding of the contexts of the manuscripts, we will be better able to grasp what they can tell us about their period, origins, environments, and obviously the text that they transmit.
What museums and galleries have you worked with?
Since beginning my research, I have had the good fortune to work with a number of institutions, beginning with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which holds a collection of several thousand ancient Qurʿānic leaves. They represent only a small sample from original bound volumes. Other leaves from the same volumes are often dispersed in collections around the world. For this reason, it requires significant investigation to identify and locate different fragments of the same manuscript and their histories across different collections. One of the manuscripts that I worked on for example – the Codex Amrensis 1 – led me to the Russian National Library in Saint Petersburg and to the Doha Museum of Islamic Arts in Qatar. More recently, my study of one of the copies attributed to Calif Uthman took place between five different collections: the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, the National Library of Egypt, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul, and the Detroit Art Institute. Naturally, my research has been made possible by the valuable assistance of curators and restorers in each institution.
In 2018 you discovered passages from the Bible behind a Qurʿān manuscript due to go on sale at Christie's. This was the only recorded palimpsest in which a Christian text had been effaced to make way for the Islamic holy text. How did you feel making that discovery and what impact did that have on the future of Qurʿānic manuscript research?
Palimpsests are relatively common among ancient manuscripts. In fact, I was working on one of these palimpsests when I discovered fragments of this manuscript at Christie’s. It was my training in deciphering different strata of script that immediately alerted me to the nature of the document I was dealing with. The palimpsest technique was well known at the time and in different book cultures, including – although less commonly – in the Islamic domain. It primarily shows the economic constraints related to the use of parchment. This recycling technique can be used for all types of text, including religious books, can be reused. But I was definitely not expecting to discover a Biblical, Coptic-language text that had been erased and covered by a Qurʿānic text (Fig.1)! The cope of this Copto-Qurʿānic text at Christie’s attests for the first time to the reuse of a Christian text in a Muslim context at an early period. There is a known example of the reverse situation, the Mingana-Lewis palimpsest in Cambridge, in which Qurʿānic texts were reused in a Christian context (MS Or.1287 is online on https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk).
Figure 1. The Copto-Qur palimpsest, sold at Christie’s Islamic art auction in 2018. permission of Christie’s
The greatest problem with the discovery was the close timing – I just had a few days to investigate the minimum required before the object disappeared into a private collection after the auction. Unfortunately, access to manuscripts is not always reliable. Heritage material can sometimes disappear, whether to circulate on the art market or to suffer more calamitous fates such as fires, deterioration, or lack of preservation. By documenting this heritage, a researcher also helps to protect it.
What has been the most memorable moment of your research journey so far?
The experience of discovering the Christie’s palimpsest was naturally one of my more memorable moments. Actually, every encounter with these manuscripts has been emotionally intense for me. You feel both privileged and humbled by these witnesses to such a long, rich history.
Can you tell us about your research project; the Qur’ān attributed to Caliph ‘Uthmān?
This project, which was funded in 2020 by the Central Bureau of Cults (Interior Ministry), centered on a manuscript discovered in the grand Mosque of ʿAmr at Fustat in Old Cairo. It was important on several levels. First, it was a monumental manuscript (fig.2): each leaf – there must originally have been about 650 – is the size of a whole animal skin! When it was complete, it must have weighed at least 50 kilograms!
Fig.2. Some leaves of the monumental Qur’an manuscript attributed to Caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān. Paris, BnF Arabe 324.
The question is who was able to produce such a manuscript and under what circumstances. What is the connection between its current attribution as one of the copies of Caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, written in his hand and stained with his bloo