In the only discovery of its kind, passages from the Bible have been found behind a Qur’an manuscript.
The discovery was made with the help of French scholar Dr Eléonore Cellard from the Collège de France in Paris, who lauded the find as a groundbreaking discovery.
“This is a very important discovery for the history of the Qur’an and early Islam,” she said. “We have here a witness of cultural interactions between different religious communities.”
Cellard was looking at images of a 1,200-year-old palimpsest page sold a decade earlier by Christie’s when she came across the auction house’s latest catalogue, which included fragments from a manuscript of the Qur’an which Christie’s had dated to the eighth century AD, or the second century of Islam. She discovered Coptic letters appearing faintly behind the Arabic script. She contacted Christie’s, and they managed to identify the Coptic text as coming from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy—part of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament.
Rare to find a Qur’an palimpsest
Even though parchment was expensive, the Qur’an was almost always written on new material.
Qur’anic palimpsests are “extremely rare,” according to Christie’s, with only a handful having been previously recorded, none of which were copied above a Christian text.
A palimpsest is a manuscript that has had its original writing scrubbed off in order to engrave different writing. Texts were primarily written on animal-skin parchments like vellum before the arrival of paper, but this material was expensive and time-consuming to make. To save resources, scholars would often scrub script off of vellum and use the clear parchment as a ‘clean slate’ to write new texts.
Christie’s specialist Romain Pingannaud told the Guardian, “At the time it was erased,the parchment was probably like new, and it’s only with centuries passing that the ink which sank into the parchment provides this ghost image we see.”
Pingannaud, who called the discovery “quite extraordinary,” noted, “Once you know it’s there, you can only see it, it becomes so obvious. We missed it at the beginning.”
Experts believe the manuscript is likely to have been produced in Egypt, which was home to the Coptic community, at the time of the Arab conquest. It said that the fragments “resonate with the historical reality of religious communities in the Near East and as such are an invaluable survival from the earliest centuries of Islam.”
A collection of nine manuscript fragments will be auctioned in London on Thursday with a guide price of £80,000-£120,000 ($110,000-$170,000).