Middle Eastern collections

Manuscripts, rare printed books, letters, other archival materials and photographs from the Middle East and North Africa.


Firdawsi, Shahnama (15th century, Or. 494)

Firdawsi, Shahnama (15th century, Or. 494)

The Middle Eastern collections comprise c. 6,000 manuscripts, a much larger number of rare printed books in the languages of the Middle East and North Africa, and the products of Western Orientalist scholarship until c. 1950. Predominant is the written heritage in the main languages of the region: Arabic, Persian and (Ottoman) Turkish, with smaller holdings in, for instance, Berber languages. Although Islam has left a strong mark upon the collections, they cover the entire range of human scholarly endeavour, from the exact sciences to literature, history and art. Typically for a plain, Protestant university, the emphasis has always been placed on texts rather than on beautiful or valuable items. Nevertheless, objects of great artistic beauty can be found among the collections. 

Historically, the Middle Eastern collections form the nucleus of the entire range of Oriental collections of Leiden University Library. Early scholars like Josephus Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) left Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts and printed books to the library. The real cornerstone of the collections, however, was laid by Levinus Warner (1619-1665), a student of Jacobus Golius and minister of the Dutch Republic to the Sublime Porte. At his death he left his private collection of 1,000 manuscripts, mainly in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, to Leiden University.

After a period of relative quiet in the 18th century the collections grew at a much quicker pace in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1883, for instance, the University Library purchased a collection of nearly 700 manuscripts from the Medinese scholar Amin b. Hasan al-Madani (d. 1898). In 1934 the Library received the bequest of the Dutch businessman and diplomat A.P.H. Hotz (1855-1930), a bibliophile collection of exquisite travel books and early photographs. Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), perhaps the Netherlands' greatest Orientalist, left his entire private library and archive to Leiden University Library at his death in 1936. In the 1960s the Library bought a large Ottoman Turkish collection, presumably the property of Sultan Murad V (1840-1904) and his heirs. The collections are still growing through purchase and donation. In 2009, for instance, the University Library acquired a collection of Islamic manuscripts from Xinjiang in the far West of the People's Republic of China.   

Access to the Middle Eastern collections

  • All Middle Eastern collections and archival materials bear the classmark Or. + number, irrespective of language or material.
  • Only a small part of the manuscript collections is available online or searchable with the help of digital finding aids through the Digital Special Collections webpages. For the greater part the collections are searchable through printed scholarly catalogues, usually arranged according to language.
  • For a growing number of collections in specific languages or originating from specific individuals, a collection guide is available with further information on the contents, the available printed catalogues and access.
  • The collections of rare Middle Eastern printed books and the products of Western Orientalist scholarship are searchable through the online public Catalogue. It is possible to refine your search with criteria like year of publication or language.

Modern Middle Eastern collections

The Modern Middle Eastern collections, with printed publications from c. 1950, are part of the general collections of Leiden University Library.

Last Modified: 17-08-2015